Ukraine president poisoned with Agent Orange as agonising pustules covered face

Russia has held ambitions to regain power over Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

Things came to an ugly head in 2004 with the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko, who opposed pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine’s presidential elections.

That year's elections were hugely controversial with allegations of electoral fraud and voter intimidation.

Yanukovych was initially declared the winner against former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, before a Supreme Court decision reversed the result of the vote.

But the most shocking story from that bitter and often violent contest was the hospitalisation of Yushchenko for what doctors initially thought was pancreatitis.

In the run-up to the election, Yushchenko had dinner with three men from Ukraine’s security services.

“When I arrived home,” he recalled, “I kissed my wife and the first thing she said was ‘your lips taste metallic’.”

He describes how on the second or third day after the diner “my body started swelling, my head grew in size dramatically,” before he started from suffering from “inflammation and pus forming all over my body”.

Yushchenko’s face became massively bloated and disfigured with pockmarks, which Professor John Henry, a toxicologist at St Mary's Hospital in London, said were signs of dioxin poisoning. Dioxin is one of the key ingredients of chemical defoliant Agent Orange, controversially used by US forces in the closing stages of the Vietnam War.

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Dutch toxicologist Bram Brouwer tested a sample of Yushchenko's blood and found levels of dioxin some 6,000 times higher than normal.

A paper from Swiss and Ukrainian researchers published in medical journal The Lancet concluded that the dioxin "was so pure that it was definitely made in a laboratory”.

Yushchenko thought Agent Orange had been deliberately chosen to poison him as a kind of “symbolism” because of his involvement in the so-called “Orange Revolution,” which aimed to take Ukraine closer to Europe and away from Russia.

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While shocking to look at, the pustules that formed on Yushchenko’s face may have helped save his life.

Jean Saurat, the dermatologist heading the team which treated Yushchenko at the Swiss Centre for Human Applied Toxicology in Geneva, said the poison became concentrated in the growths, preventing it from destroying Yushchenko’s liver.

Even so, it was a close-run thing: “God knows what would’ve happened if we didn’t treat him,” Saurat told New Scientist.

“When he first came in, he was very, very ill, and he might have died from poisoning, but he excreted a lot of dioxin early on through vomiting and diarrhoea”.

One of the three men at the dinner when Yushchenko was poisoned, the former deputy chief of Ukraine's security service, Volodymyr Satsyuk, fled to Russia shortly afterwards.

After arriving in Russia Satsyuk was granted Russian citizenship protecting him from ever being extradited back to Ukraine.

Without a trial to establish exactly who was responsible, the exact person or persons behind the poisoning must remain a mystery.

Asked whether he thought Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally issued the order for the poisoning Yushchenko said “ I have an answer, but I can’t actually say it”.

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