A member of the Russian elite dies in a freak accident? Coincidence. Then someone else dies under similar circumstances? Can be written off as coincidence. But a soaring death toll of 23 in less than a year has raised fears of “enemy action,” as Auric Goldfinger put it to James Bond in the classic 1964 spy film.
As of late January 2022, Russia’s accident-prone business tycoons are rapidly in danger of becoming an endangered species.
The series of mysterious deaths has garnered global attention and there are growing fears that dark forces are at play, although the deaths are mainly attributed to misadventures and mental health issues.
The trail of bloodshed that began just before Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine stretches across time zones and continents.
Deaths vary from the seemingly simple (strokes and suicides) to the crazy accidents (falling down stairs or a speedboat) to the downright bizarre (poisoned by a shaman’s toad venom).
The youngest of the fatalities was 37 years old and the oldest 73 years old. They have included feared military leaders, billionaire oil and gas oligarchs, top executives, high-ranking officials and, most recently, a “sausage tycoon”.
Click on the images below to find out how they died.
Some of the deaths were marked by brutal violence, with a gas manager found hanged at his Spanish villa where his wife and daughter were beaten to death with an axe.
The common thread is the elite status of the deceased in Russian society and the wealth they amassed during their rise to the top of their industry.
Some were either closely associated with the Kremlin or outspoken opponents of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
On July 9, an anonymous Wikipedia user created a page titled “2022 Russian Mystery Deaths,” which began a running count of deaths.
In October, prominent financier Bill Browder said so ABC it appeared to be a “murder epidemic” unleashed by oligarchs fighting over the war-induced cash shortages, with Putin implicated as the country’s de facto “mafia boss.”
Browder’s view – that the deaths were contract killings – is supported by many of the deceased’s friends, family and colleagues, who have questioned official statements by investigators.
The oil and gas magnates
Professor Jeffrey Winters, a political scientist and oligarchs expert at Northwestern University in Illinois, pointed out that many of the dead were billionaires with bodyguards and access to the best healthcare money could buy.
He said The Sydney Morning herald and That Age that one can only speculate about the causes without thorough investigations, however, described the death of the oligarchs as “highly unusual”.
“They have access to the best healthcare. They fly to top hospitals like the Mayo Clinic and get concierge check-ups and treatments, paying the full cost without insurance,” he said.
Most oligarchs also have an entourage or security detail in tow, making them difficult to kill, Winter noted.
“Being a wealthy oligarch means you have a lot of layers of protection around you,” he said. “If not bodyguards, then at least private drivers and personal assistants to handle everything for them. If they stay in hotels, they are usually on floors that require extra security access or have elevator staff. These are not people who accidentally fall off roofs or out of windows.”
The business people
Winters said the recent death toll continued a pattern of mysterious poisoning and assassination attempts that had been ongoing under Putin for more than a decade.
“The three places where oligarchs are most vulnerable are Saudi Arabia, China and Russia,” he said. “These are the only places where large numbers of oligarchs have been arrested, imprisoned or died under strange circumstances.”
Stephen Fortescue, UNSW Associate Professor, is a political scientist specializing in Russia.
He said the deaths weren’t necessarily suspicious on their own, but given the weight of the numbers, he couldn’t rule out the possibility that at least some were the result of foul play.
“Heart attacks, suicide, falls from boats — they all happen,” Fortescue said. “Russian men are particularly prone to all of these things – they lead stressful lives and they drink too much. This is a particularly stressful time for them.
“So they sound plausible as isolated cases, but when the numbers go up, you can’t help but pay more attention.”
He believed the most likely motives for murder were commercial disputes or that the victim possessed information that made them liable to another person.
Fortescue was unconvinced that the deaths were a concerted campaign from a single source like Putin.
“We know that Putin and the state are not afraid to use force and coercion, but the connections in these cases are not particularly convincing,” he said.
Winter offered a different view.
“Putin is a sultanist oligarch, meaning he is the leading or alpha oligarch in Russia,” he said. “He can make or break oligarchs. He is both the source of safety and risk.”
Winters said Putin must find a way to tame the rest of the country’s oligarchs, who as a group are extremely powerful.
“It would be dangerous for Putin to attack all the oligarchs at once. Sultanist oligarchs like Putin demonstrate their power by making examples of selected members of the group. It reminds the others who butters their bread and who can take it down. It’s a very common pattern of oligarchy around the world and throughout history.”
The Russian investigative committee has repeatedly refused to comment on the deaths when contacted by international media, including CNN.
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https://www.smh.com.au/world/europe/how-the-mysterious-deaths-of-23-elite-russians-sparked-a-global-murder-mystery-20221230-p5c9gb.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_world Vladimir Putin and Russian oligarchs mysteriously killed