While British counterterrorism police continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding the sudden severe illness of a Russian defector and his daughter, at least one person warned weeks ago of the possibility of a Kremlin foe abroad falling prey to a poisoning.
Marina Litvinenko, the wife of murdered former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko, whose death in 2006 by radioactive poisoning in London was likely to have been ordered by the Kremlin, according to U.K. investigators, told Current Time TV on January 26 that with the current political climate in Russia, such incidents were "quite possible."
"I do not want to make terrible forecasts, but given what is happening in Russia and how justice is done there, how people in Russia find themselves in prison on far-fetched charges -- this is quite possible," she said when asked if she could imagine reprisals against political opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is a shoo-in to claim a fourth term in an election later this month.
U.K. authorities have sought to rein in speculation that Russia is behind the "unknown substance" that has left Sergei Skripal, 66, a colonel in Russia's GRU military intelligence service before his jailing for spilling Russian secrets, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, in critical condition at a hospital in southern England.
But British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson warned that any involvement of a foreign government in the incident would not go "unpunished."
The incident comes against a backdrop of mistrust between Western governments and Moscow over alleged election meddling in the United States and Europe, a four-year war between Russia-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government that sparked sanctions and countersanctions, and a seemingly sustained push by President Vladimir Putin to reassert Russian influence in major international crises from Syria to the Korean Peninsula.
Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping mall in Salisbury. Investigators have said they believe the two were exposed to an undetermined substance that caused their illness.
The circumstances swiftly drew comparisons with the death of Litvinenko, a former Russian security agent who fell ill and died in London in November 2006 after ingesting radioactive polonium-210.
A British inquiry concluded that the Russian government was behind Litvinenko's death and that Putin "probably approved" the killing. Russia, which denied any involvement in the death of Litvinenko, has also dismissed claims that it may have had a hand in any poisoning of Skripal, a former Russian double agent who was living in England following a prisoner swap.
Litvinenko said in her January interview that the Russian authorities were "only concerned with money" and that if they felt threatened, even from abroad, they would act.
She also warned that with security authorities in Russia appearing to be following in the footsteps of their Soviet-era predecessors, the situation might worsen after the presidential election on March 18.
"How can we be sure that the successors of these organizations will not begin to engage in the same in our time?" she said. "With this in mind, Putin's new term may prove to be a very severe test for all."
Reports from the United Kingdom -- and indeed Marina Litvinenko herself -- have suggested Skripal kept a "low profile" after the 2010 prisoner swap that was a marked contrast to Litvinenko's public opposition to Putin.
Skripal's son, Alexander, reportedly died of sudden liver failure at the age of 43 during a mid-2017 visit to St. Petersburg.