December 22, 2019 12:20:25 pm
By Michael Schwirtz
The Russian assassin used an alias, Sergei Fedotov, and slipped into Bulgaria unnoticed, checking into a hotel in Sofia near the office of a local arms manufacturer who had been selling ammunition to Ukraine.
He led a team of three men.
Within days, one man sneaked into a locked parking garage, smeared poison on the handle of the arms manufacturer’s car, then left, undetected, except for blurry images captured by surveillance video.
Shortly after, the arms manufacturer, Emilian Gebrev, was meeting with business partners at a rooftop restaurant when he began to hallucinate and vomit.
The poisoning left Gebrev, now 65, hospitalised for a month. His son was poisoned, and so was another top executive at his company. When Gebrev was discharged, the assassins poisoned him and his son again, at their summer home on the Black Sea. They all survived, though Gebrev’s business has yet to recover fully.
Western security and intelligence officials said the Bulgaria poisonings were a critical clue that helped expose a campaign by the Kremlin and its sprawling web of intelligence operatives to eliminate Russia’s enemies abroad and destabilise the West.
Entering his third decade in power, President Vladimir Putin of Russia is pushing hard to reestablish Russia as a world power. Russia cannot compete economically or militarily with the United States and China, so Putin is waging an asymmetric shadow war.
In October, The New York Times revealed that a specialised group of Russian intelligence operatives — Unit 29155 — had for years been assigned to carry out killings and political disruption campaigns in Europe.
Based on interviews with officials in Europe and the United States, it is also now clear that the assassination attempts against Gebrev served as a kind of Rosetta Stone that helped Western intelligence agencies to discover Unit 29155 — and to decipher the kind of threat it presented.
Security and intelligence officials are still working to understand how and why the unit is assigned certain targets. Even now, investigators have not determined the precise motive in the Gebrev case. Most likely, intelligence officials said, Gebrev was a target because of the way his business rankled the Kremlin: his arms sales, his company’s intrusion into markets long dominated by Russia, and his efforts to purchase a weapons factory coveted by a Russian oligarch.
The poison took effect slowly.
Gebrev first realised something was wrong on the evening of April 27, 2015, when his right eye suddenly turned “as red as the red on the Russian flag.”
The next evening, Gebrev went to his favorite restaurant on the 19th floor of the Hotel Marinela. At dinner, Gebrev began to vomit violently and was rushed to a military hospital. There, he began to see explosions of vivid colors. Then, his field of vision suddenly turned to black and white.
As his hallucinations intensified, he imagined angry, fantastical creatures that threatened to drag him away.
A day later, the company’s production manager, Valentin Tahchiev, was hospitalised, too. Days after that, Gebrev’s son, Hristo Gebrev, who was being groomed to lead his father’s company, Emco, was also rushed to intensive care.
“When they get rid of me and my son, the company will be destroyed,” Gebrev said later. “Who would sign contracts? Who has the rights?”
For the next month, as the elder Gebrev recuperated in the hospital, Bulgarian authorities made little progress on the case. In a former Soviet satellite country with a long history of contract killings, Bulgarian news media barely paid attention. The prosecutor general suggested that Gebrev had been sickened by tainted arugula. Eventually, though, officials concluded that all three men had been poisoned.
In late May, Gebrev was released from the hospital and joined his son at the family vacation home on the Black Sea. There, the two men were poisoned again. This time, the symptoms were less dramatic, and they drove themselves back to Sofia and checked into the same hospital for about two weeks.
Despite two poisonings, Bulgarian prosecutors failed to unearth any leads or evidence.
When the hospital failed to determine the substance used in the poisoning, Gebrev enlisted a Finnish laboratory, Verifin, which detected two chemicals in his urine, including diethyl phosphonate, which is found in pesticides. The other chemical could not be identified.
By the following summer, Bulgarian authorities had dropped the case. They apparently had no idea that Unit 29155 even existed. Neither did intelligence and security officials in the rest of Europe.
Yet as Gebrev’s case remained colder than cold, members of Unit 29155 were very busy, according to partial travel records reviewed by the Times. From 2016 to 2018, operatives made at least two dozen trips from Moscow to different European countries.
Their operation in Bulgaria most likely would never have been detected.
Then there was another poisoning.
In March 2018, a former Russian spy named Sergei Skripal was poisoned by a lethal nerve agent in the English town of Salisbury.
British prosecutors blamed the attack on assassins working for Russia’s military intelligence agency, known widely as the GRU. Working with European allies, British authorities analysed travel records of known Russian operatives. One stood out: a man using a Russian passport with the name of Sergei Fedotov.
For five years, he had traveled extensively in Europe, visiting Serbia, Spain and Switzerland. He was in London a few days before Skripal was poisoned, leaving shortly after that attack, and British authorities have now identified him as the commander of the team that poisoned Skripal.
It also turned out that he had been in Bulgaria in 2015, making three visits: in February; in April, when Gebrev was first poisoned; and again in late May, coinciding with the second poisoning.
Investigators from the Britain-based open-source news outlet Bellingcat have identified the man using the Fedotov alias as Denis Sergeev, a high-ranking GRU officer and a veteran of Russia’s wars in the North Caucasus. British authorities confirmed the accuracy of the report.
The revelation that he was connected to the poisonings in both England and Bulgaria was critical in helping Western officials conclude that these were not one-off Russian attacks but rather part of a coordinated campaign run by Unit 29155.
Armed with new evidence provided by the British, the Bulgarian prosecutor general, Sotir Tsatsarov, reopened the case in October 2018. Almost immediately, investigators discovered fresh clues. Before the initial poisoning, Fedotov and two other operatives from Unit 29155 had checked into the Hill Hotel, in the same complex where Gebrev has his office. They insisted, prosecutors now indicated, on rooms with views of the entrance to an underground parking garage where Emco executives kept their cars.
In the garage, prosecutors discovered grainy surveillance video that showed a well-dressed figure approaching Gebrev’s gray Nissan as well as the cars owned by Gebrev’s son and the production manager. The figure appears to smear something on the handles of all three cars. Western intelligence officials have surmised that the substance was a poison.
There is little doubt that Gebrev’s profession — the manufacture and sale of munitions and light weapons — places him in a risky field, especially in Bulgaria.
In recent years, the Kremlin has grown increasingly alarmed as smaller countries have nibbled away at Russia’s dominance in the arms industry. At a meeting in June with high-ranking security officials, Putin warned that Russia’s position in the industry was threatened.
Bulgaria now sells more than 1.2 billion euros, about $1.3 billion, in weapons annually, a relatively modest figure for the sector, but a sum that has not gone unnoticed by Moscow.
Gebrev was also entangled with another project that might have displeased Moscow. Shortly before he was poisoned, Gebrev tried to purchase Dunarit, a large arms production plant in Bulgaria coveted by a Kremlin-backed oligarch, Konstantin Malofeev.
The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Malofeev for funding Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Today, Gebrev has recovered physically, though his business is still ailing. In August 2017, the Bulgarian Economic Ministry temporarily revoked his export license. The ministry is headed by Emil Karanikolov, who was nominated to his post by the far-right Ataka party, which has long faced scrutiny over its close ties with Moscow.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.