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Did Russian operatives try to poison BP's CEO?

“There still is a disturbing willingness among some in Russian business to use tactics like blackmail, forgery and even murder.”

by Greg Walters
May 1 2018, 3:59pm

In the summer of 2008, Robert Dudley, the American oilman now at the helm of British oil giant BP, fled from Russia while complaining of “sustained harassment.”

Now, a former employee says Dudley really bolted from Moscow because blood tests revealed someone was trying to poison him in the midst of a bitter fight between BP and its Russian oligarch partners.

BP’s Chief Financial Officer Brian Gilvary dismissed the report as “a complete urban myth” on Tuesday. But the company’s press office declined to issue an outright denial, and close Russia-watchers called the notion at least plausible, especially in light of the recent poisoning claims about former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, who was dosed with a rare chemical agent in England earlier this spring.

“While observers have no way to know for certain, Putin’s Russia has lost the benefit of the doubt,” John Sipher, a former CIA officer who worked in Moscow, told VICE News.

Dudley was forced to flee Moscow after blood test results showed he was being poisoned slowly, Ilya Zaslavskiy, who worked for TNK-BP for over four years, told UK newspaper the Telegraph late Monday. Zaslavskiy claimed that Russian authorities wanted to oust Dudley, so they began slipping him doses that weren’t sufficient to actually kill him.

“One reason conspiracy theories are so popular in Russia is that conspiracies do, in fact, exist in Russia.”

The alleged incident took place two years after the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer who was killed in London after being exposed to radioactive polonium-210.

BP was locked in a dispute with its Russian shareholders in its joint-venture TNK-BP around this period. A couple months later, BP reached a truce in the feud with the Russian shareholders in which Dudley agreed to step down from his role as CEO of TNK-BP. He submitted his resignation on Dec. 1, 2008.

In 2013, TNK-BP was acquired by Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft.

In 2014, in a profile of TNK-BP shareholder Len Blavatnik, The New Yorker detailed the levels of harassment Dudley experienced before stepping away.

“According to a U.S. Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks, TNK-BP’s C.E.O., Robert Dudley, sometimes came home at night and found papers on his kitchen table: legal summonses compelling him to appear at hearings far from Moscow, with only a few hours’ notice,” The New Yorker wrote. “Fearing that his office was bugged, Dudley passed notes with his colleagues to avoid being overheard. He began feeling ill. On a trip out of Russia, according to three people close to BP, he had his blood tested, and poison was found in his bloodstream. He stopped eating food provided by the company and began to feel better. Finally, one day in July, Dudley learned that the police were coming for him the next morning. He went out the back door of his apartment to a waiting car and left the country.”

A spokesperson for BP declined to comment Tuesday on the story to VICE News.

“These rumours have been around for some time and we have not commented, and I’m afraid we do not intend to comment now,” BP spokesman Chris Reynolds wrote in an email.

Dudley himself has chafed at the dogged rumors. When asked about the poisoning report in 2014, he said: “I don’t know why people write that kind of thing. There was obviously a conflict there and I needed to leave or I wasn’t going to be in — in legal with my work permits and my residency status. And so I did have to leave and worked to manage the company from outside of Russia. But I don’t know. There’s a lot of wild things said about that period.”

Russia-watchers called the allegations plausible, if far from proven.

“One reason conspiracy theories are so popular in Russia is that conspiracies do, in fact, exist in Russia,” said Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. “The Skripal poisoning, especially, makes things appear plausible that would probably have been dismissed a few months ago.”

Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian intelligence, said the case appears far from conclusive — and that even if Dudley was poisoned, it might not have been the work of Russian spies.

“Many of the accusations of actual and attempted Russia-related murders we've heard of late, if true, are more likely to reflect the nature of modern Russian business, red in tooth and claw, rather than necessarily have anything to do with the Kremlin,” he wrote in an email to VICE News. “There still is a disturbing willingness among some in Russian business to use tactics like blackmail, forgery and even murder.”

BP’s co-investors in TNK-BP went on to feature in the notorious dossier compiled by former UK intelligence officer Christopher Steele.

Cover image: BP CEO Robert Dudley speaks during a news conference in Moscow July 17, 2008. (AP Photo/Kommersant, Andery Makhonin)