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Wife of Ukraine’s spy chief was poisoned, officials say

Major General Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine's military intelligence chief, attended a commemorative event that marked one year of the war between Russia and Ukraine in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 24, 2023. Budanov's wife, Marianna Budanova, has been diagnosed with heavy metals poisoning and is undergoing treatment in a hospital, a spokesperson for the agency said on Tuesday.Uncredited/Associated Press

KYIV — The wife of Ukraine’s military intelligence chief has been poisoned and is recovering in a hospital, Ukrainian intelligence officials said Tuesday, an incident that has led to widespread speculation that Russia was stepping up efforts to target Ukraine’s senior leadership.

Andriy Chernyak, an official from the Ukrainian military intelligence agency, said that Marianna Budanova had been poisoned and was receiving treatment. Her husband, Kyrylo, is the head of the agency known as GUR and is one of the country’s most senior military leaders.

Chernyak declined to speculate on the perpetrator or the type of poison used and provided no further details, citing the ongoing investigation.

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The agency’s spokesperson, Andriy Yusov, later issued a statement with a similar account of the incident and said more information would be released as the investigation proceeds.

The suspected poisoning of Marianna Budanova was first reported by the Ukrainian news outlet Babel. It said that doctors found a large amount of heavy metals in her system that are “not used in any way in everyday life and military affairs.”

Her husband had not fallen ill, the Ukrainian officials said.

The reports that Marianna Budanova had been poisoned sparked immediate suspicion in Ukraine that Russia, which has a long history of using poison as a tool to exact revenge and eliminate perceived enemies, may have been responsible.

Her husband has often stated that Russia planned to kill him, and Yusov said this summer that there had been at least 10 attempts by Russia to do so.

The circumstances of the poisoning and how Budanova had been affected were not immediately clear. But Budanov told Radio Liberty earlier this year that since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in 2022, his wife, a psychologist who worked as an anticorruption adviser to the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, had essentially moved into her husband’s office.

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If Russia was able to poison his wife, it would suggest that its agents were operating closer to the inner circles of power in Kyiv than previously thought possible.

Viktor Yahun, the former deputy head of the domestic intelligence agency, the Security Service of Ukraine, has participated in past investigations into poisonings and said more information was needed before it would be possible to assess the Budanova case.

But Yahun said he would be surprised if Russia had agents in Ukraine who could get close to Budanova or her husband.

“It just doesn’t have the needed kind of agents on the territory of Ukraine that would be able to poison someone,” he said.

However, Oleksiy Danilov, the head of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, said in an interview before the poisoning was announced that Russia was activating sleeper agents and ramping up its efforts to destabilize the government in Kyiv.

“In 2003, Putin set himself the task of destroying our country, and during all this time their tasks have not changed,” he said. “Considering the fact that the Russian Federation does not have the ability to win by military means, it is now using all its agent networks, which, unfortunately, still exist. And now we are observing their maximum activation.”

Budanov has an outsize public profile for the leader of a clandestine agency and is often portrayed in the media as the mastermind of some of the boldest attacks on Russian targets behind enemy lines.

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Fond of wearing a pistol on his hip when meeting with journalists, Budanov has said that Ukraine has the right to assassinate Russian war criminals anywhere in the world they might try to hide. He is proud of comparisons made between his agency and the Israeli Mossad.

“They have been trying to accuse me of terrorism since 2016,” he said in one interview. “What they call ‘terrorism’ we call liberation.”

Russia has targeted senior Ukrainian leaders in the past, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, according to Ukrainian officials.

In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian opposition candidate at the time, fell ill and developed a broad array of painful and disfiguring conditions that plagued him during the final three months of the presidential campaign.

His opponents ridiculed his claims that he had been poisoned, saying that the once-telegenic candidate had been stricken by bad sushi or too much drink. But doctors in Vienna later established that he had been poisoned with dioxin, a highly toxic waste product of various industrial chemical processes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.