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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


It could easily be the plot of a novel by Len Deighton or Graham Greene. More than one hundred American diplomats, military officers and their families have succumbed to 'Havana syndrome' – or, in US official parlance, 'anomalous health incidents' – over recent years. Some victims report an unbearable piercing noise that won't go away, intense headaches which cause them to vomit, with symptoms continuing long after the initial incident. Havana syndrome renders its victims too unwell to work and some have reportedly suffered blindness or hearing loss.

News first emerged about US diplomatic staff in Cuba falling ill in 2016. Now, following a year long investigation by The Insider, Der Spiegel and 60 Minutes, journalists have concluded that Russian military intelligence operatives using 'directed energy weapons' are to blame. Does the evidence really stack up?

The heart of the matter

Despite its name, so–called Havana syndrome has affected US personnel in many places from Guangzhou to Tbilisi and from Hanoi to Tashkent. The first incidents appear to have occurred earlier than originally reported, with the investigative report dating the earliest cases to Frankfurt in 2014. Although the specific cause remains a mystery, theories use terms like 'pulsed microwave radiation'. It does start to sound like the IPCRESS file.

The most interesting part of the new investigative report, to my mind, is that it links some of the victims to operations at a CIA station established in Ukraine in the wake of events in that country in 2014. Other victims were Russia specialists or otherwise worked on Russia policy, according to the report.

The journalists offer a range of evidence that a unit within the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency, is behind the incidents. They point to awards given to GRU employees for work on developing 'non–lethal acoustic weapons', using travel logs and phone–call metadata they trace GRU operatives' movements to coincide with the 'attacks', and they provide eyewitness accounts from victims identifying known GRU operatives as being present at the time of the incidents. It's an impressive account and pretty compelling as a body of evidence even if it lacks a smoking gun.

The power and the glory

The Russian state sees itself as being at war with the United States and it is certainly possible that it would target American officials in some way. Russian intelligence capabilities should not be underestimated. It is true that the Russian intelligence agencies' assessments ahead of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine were found wanting: they appear to have utterly misread Ukrainian public opinion and the level of support the United States and its allies would give to Ukraine in resisting the invasion. But Russia has learnt from those errors and the Kremlin does not appear hesitant to sanction the killing of Russian opponents abroad, so why wouldn't it target US officials whom it see as 'enemies' as well?

Russian intelligence and security agencies have a long history. At the end of the Soviet era, the authorities in Moscow broke up the KGB into a handful of successor agencies including the FSB (domestic security) and the SVR (foreign intelligence). As is well known, a certain Vladimir Putin spent part of his earlier career in the KGB and served as director of the FSB from 1998 before becoming Russia's prime minister in 1999. While I'm wary of accounts that emphasise Putin's KGB past to account for the present, it is nonetheless the case that the KGB casts a powerful shadow and influence over contemporary Russia.

In 2003, during Putin's presidency, there was some reorganisation of the agencies' responsibilities. This could be seen as an effort to restore some of the status and powers of the KGB to the FSB. Certain operations were brought under the control of the FSB, including the re–establishment of a department to deal with internal dissent (undertaken by the KGB's Fifth Directorate) and intelligence gathering in former Soviet republics such as Ukraine. The various intelligence agencies presumably engage in turf wars over duties and one imagines Ukraine has prompted a lot of activities by the various Russian agencies.

As mentioned already, the latest investigation into Havana syndrome ties its victims to a CIA station in Ukraine and attributes the 'attacks' to the GRU, Russia's main military intelligence agency. It is the GRU that most people hold responsible for the Salisbury poisonings in 2016. The investigation specifically attributes 'Havana syndrome' to the activities of Unit 29155 which it says is responsible for sabotage and 'lethal' operations. If that attribution is correct, one would have to conclude that it was a successful operation given how long it went undetected. Earlier, official US assessments had been unable to attribute the 'anomalous health incidents' to any human actor or agency. An inter–agency investigation, which concluded last March, had said it was 'very unlikely' that a foreign actor caused the cases (corroborating earlier CIA findings).

The end of the affair?

Not everyone agrees with the findings of the latest investigation. The report notes that the US National Security Agency is 'sceptical' that Russia is to blame. In some political journalists and politicians there's an obsession with seeing foreign conspiracies where simpler explanations are plausible: so far as I can tell, the symptoms do vary between cases, which does raise the possibility they could be unrelated and the result of stress, other ailments or even 'functional neurological disorders'. Maybe it is better to understand them as 'anomalous health incidents' and treat their grouping into a 'syndrome' as misleading.

On social media, I saw some people ask why, if Russia is behind this, the Kremlin hasn't used it against the domestic opposition (like the late Alexey Navalny)? I don't think that's a strong argument, mind. First of all, we don't know that they didn't. More importantly, it would firmly put Moscow's fingerprints on the attacks and that seems out of character.

If they were 'attacks', their success relied on not being able to attribute them and therefore their deniability. I find it strange when commentators imply that Russia wants people to know it was behind the poisonings of Alexander Litvinenko or the Skripals in Salisbury. The whole point of using poisoning to kill opponents, in my view, is that you expect to leave no trace and that you therefore hope to get away with it. If you want to draw attention to your activities, you could do it in a manner that leaves no room for doubt. In either case your opponents will be unnerved by the deaths; in the event of undetected reasons for opponents' deaths, living opponents will struggle to believe it a coincidence while others will pay insufficient attention. That's a good outcome for an assassin.

Some of the victims of Havana syndrome think that the US government knows more than it is letting on. The suggestion here is that if Russia's GRU is behind it, then there must be a tough US response against Russia and US officials are worried of what the public might expect to see, or that diplomats will start resigning from their posts in fear. It's better to let sleeping dogs lie. Except these dogs aren't for sleeping.

Thank you for reading! You can support this blog by buying a copy of my book Belarus in Crisis: From Domestic Unrest to the Russia–Ukraine War. Available from Amazon and other booksellers.

Cover image: Andrea Piacquadio from

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