Purportedly the Russian state assassinated Alexander Litvinenko by poisoning with him with:

radioactive polonium-210, believed to have been administered in a cup of tea

Alexander Litvinenko: Profile of murdered Russian spy


Former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia, Theresa May has told MPs.

Russian spy: Highly likely Moscow behind attack, says Theresa May

Whilst, North Korea apparently performed a similiar attack.

Kim Jong-nam died after a bizarre encounter at Kuala Lumpur airport in 2017, when two women smeared his face with VX nerve agent.

North Korea used VX nerve agent to kill leader's brother, says US

These chemical and radioactive weapons seem unusual, complicated, and draw attention.

Is there a specific reason these weapons are used, as opposed to a more commonly available weapon?


6 Answers 6


The reasons given by @zidadawatimmy's answer aren't wrong, but the points made in the original post are also well taken. As your decision to post this question in this forum illustrates, this is also a quintessentially political act.

These chemical and radioactive weapons seem unusual, complicated, and draw attention.

This is a feature and not a bug.

Another analysis is that it is intended that the organizations behind these hits are unambiguous and that each hit is intended to send a loud and clear message to others similarly situated about who is ready, able and willing to kill you if you don't behave.

When you choose to kill with polonium-210 or a nerve gas agent, you are making it unambiguously clear that this is an officially sanctioned killing by an agency of a sovereign government that has access to these kinds of weapons. There is no room to suppose that this was a hit ordered by a jealous lover, or as a consequence of a drug deal gone bad, or by an anti-government faction. The method, together with the identity of the victim and to the extent discernible (as in the Korean case where the dupes who actually carried out the killing swiftly reported that their handler was Korean IIRC) the ethnicity of the perpetrator, leaves little room for reasonable doubt regarding who is responsible, short of an official public statement that the government carried out the killing, which even then could be doubted.

Also, the novelty of the method of assassination ensures that the hit becomes international news that is available to everyone else whom that government might want to exert pressure upon in the future (and a link to a verifiable third-party news clip could send the same message to hermits living on rocks who didn't catch this news the first time around).

These are all individuals who are being assassinated for suspected or actual disloyalty or insubordination of some form, and a public identifiable, high profile hit tells others who might consider disloyalty or insubordination that even if it seems like they are in the clear, that they can be made to suffer a horrible death at any time as a consequence of their disloyalty or insubordination and that the agency of the sovereign government to whom they owe loyalty won't hesitate to do it. It demonstrates that this agency has no scruples when it comes to disciplining its own.

After a few incidents like this, a mere photograph of the recipient or a member of their family, sent in a letter postmarked in a city associated with the agency to which the recipient might consider being disloyal or insubordinate could be enough to trigger terror in that person sufficient to secure their obedience, because it would demonstrate that they have the ability to kill the recipient since they know where the recipient lives.

Essentially, this is the same kind of showy, disgust inducing tactic seen in similarly overblown killings in fictional stories like the delivery of the dead horse head in The Godfather, or even more gory acts in the same vein in Game of Thrones.

The Latin phrase associated with this tactic when used in the Roman empire by some of its less scrupulous Caesars was: Oderint Dum Metuant ("Let them hate so long as they fear.")

  • 31
    Something possibly supporting this theory is how spokespeople eg state TV presenters make clear public warnings or threats to would-be double agents or "traitors" following these cases, for example recently bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-43330498 "I don't wish death on anyone, but for purely educational purposes, I have a warning for anyone who dreams of such a career: The profession of a traitor is one of the most dangerous in the world... Don't choose Britain as a place to live... too many strange incidents with grave outcomes". Not proof, but it certainly fits the theory. Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 9:35
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    Non-state actors can and do commit gas attacks, at least with Sarin. Novichok, maybe not.
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 12:52
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    @gerrit They do try, but they really are not very good at it. Handling and deploying nuclear or nerve agents is not remotely easy (and we should be thankful for that).
    – matt_black
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 15:08
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    Not just willing and able to kill you, but willing to go to rather extreme measures to do so. Stabbing/shooting someone is rather straightforward. It takes a lot more effort to successfully orchestrate obtaining, transporting and delivering such agents. This is not an off-handed attack, but a carefully planned and choreographed one. The message is not just "we'll kill you" but "we will spend significant time, effort and resources to do so".
    – R.M.
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 17:17
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    @R.M. also, stabbing or shooting someone might happen due to other causes: a jealous lover, a mugging gone wrong, or just a terrorist or psychopath attacking random victims.
    – vsz
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 21:29

Everyone knows what a gun looks like

They are relatively easy to detect, and security personnel may be trained to better spot those carrying a gun. Acquiring a gun, especially for foreigners, can be especially difficult. Sneaking one into the country is more difficult.

Knives are similarly "obvious", and require a close range attack.

In either case the physical motions necessary to draw and use the weapon provide a brief but potentially sufficient window to mount a defense. While a solid strike from either is frequently lethal, an attacker who feels compelled to try to escape may not have the luxury of making sure a death blow has truly been struck.

They are also difficult to dispose of.

Almost nobody knows what polonium 210 looks like

It was several weeks before anyone thought to consider Polonium-210 poisoning with Litvinenko. And this was mostly a coincidence: a nuclear physicist happened to be watching a newscast, and recognized the data that was mentioned as being a signature of Polonium-210. In this particular case the substance does not even have the "usual" radioactive signature. Geiger counters won't pick it up, and it's pretty much only lethal if you ingest it. It emits alpha radiation, and your skin suffices to block it.

The substance was smuggled in multiple times because it looks like little more than some water. The alleged assassins even handled the material carelessly and disposed it by simply flushing it down the toilet because they both didn't fully understand the potential dangers and because they didn't think it could actually be detected and traced.

Other chemical agents are similar: they are difficult to detect unless you know what to look for and have things specifically designed to find it, and usually only require small quantities to be lethal (making it ostensibly easier to dispose of, especially if they readily dissolve in water).

It takes a fraction of a second to diagnose a gunshot wound

Getting stabbed or shot is a pretty obvious thing. They make noise, and the damage is immediate and easily recognized. All of this makes it very difficult for the assassins to get away.

It is preferable for them to return, as they may conceivably be able to commit further assassinations, which is a non-trivial job generally requiring non-trivial skills. Additionally, an assassin who is caught is someone who won't be getting paid and who might rat out who it is that wanted them dead, which is highly undesirable on all ends.

Stabbings and shootings are done by people who aren't seriously planning to get away, or who are acting emotionally in the spur of the moment.

Seriously, what's polonium 210 even look like?

On the other hand, it may take days or weeks for a poison or chemical agent to cause symptoms to appear, and may take even longer for the nature of the problem to be realized. It may just seem to be a really nasty flu for a time, as was the case with Litvinenko. By the time the truth is discovered it may be far too late to save the victim.

In the meantime, the assassins can calmly try to clean up their tracks and make their way back to their home country, or other safe haven. Litvinenko's alleged assassins had long since returned to Russia before suspicions fell on them, and Russia will never extradite a national (especially if this was actually a government ordered kill).

It's a way more horrible death.

A slow, miserable, excruciating death sends a message that a quick gunshot to the head does not: do what these people did and you will suffer the same awful fate. Some Russian officials even explicitly said as much in regards to Litvinenko. It's a little bit easier to face death if you believe it will be quick and painless and limited to yourself. But weeks of agony, with friends and loved ones watching you go through it, perhaps not even knowing what's wrong with you for most of it? That's much harder to take on.

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    Sneaking a gun into a country is easy if you have diplomats with diplomatic immunity doing it for you, as the perpetrators in these cases could have if they wished, and there are plenty of ways that a trained professional can kill someone with a firearm for which a subsequent medical diagnosis is irrelevant. These were not hired guns, they were government employees who could have had an official cover. There certainly is something to the horrible death hypothesis, however (although nerve gas agents, in contrast are quite quick).
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 4:31
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    @ohwilleke It's certainly not impossible, it's just harder. It takes a fair amount of setup to kill someone with a gun without it being noticed within hours. Again, not impossible, though I'd like to think a Russian ex-spy knows better than to get into a situation where being shot to death takes much longer to notice. And a few hours is a small window in which to effect your exit and deal with any disruptions to the plan. A simple flight delay could be ruinous, or getting found out mid-flight might get you detained (depending). Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 4:59
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    In the gun vs polonium discussion, I think the main point is not how hard it is to commit the assassination (and getting polonium 210 might not be much easier than getting a gun), it is the necessity for the murdered to escape unnoticed. If I shoot someone in the park, there is a risk for me to be caught by a courageous passer-by, a cop, a military who happened to be there... Any witness, at least, will know at once what exactly he has witnessed. And because of the diplomatic implications, my boss cannot afford me to be caught red-handed. ../..
    – Evargalo
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 9:10
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    @Evargalo Getting polonium 210 is orders of magnitude harder than getting a gun. I mean, massively, massively harder. It's a highly controlled substance because of its potential use in nuclear weapons; it also has a pretty short half-life (138 days), so you need to separate and use it pretty quickly. If you want a gun, you just need to know the right kind of criminal (or even legal dealer); if you want Po-210, you need to be very good friends with a state's nuclear weapons infrastructure. Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 13:49
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    @DavidRicherby Nuclear physics researchers can order (and do) simply order Po-210 from several governments around the world. I had some (many times the minimum lethal dose) in a source safe when the news of the Alexander Litvinenko hit. Certainly it is a closely controlled material, but it doesn't not partake of the level of security that goes with weapons-grade fissile materials. You can even order tiny (nanoCurie) samples as 'needle sources' on-line with a minimum of paperwork–they are used with cloud chambers for demonstration purposes. Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 18:07

Assassinations like this are specifically done so they stand out. Polonium and nerve agents don't grow on trees, so you immediately have to turn to state sponsorship. The problem is that perpetrators are seldom caught (North Korea was just clumsy in their hit) and states who had a reason to want the deceased silenced simply deny any involvement. But you get your money's worth because it lets people know that, even on foreign soil, we can still kill you (the unusual manner of death ensures the 24/7 news cycle picks the story up).

The other benefit is that, once your target is afflicted, the odds of survival are exceptionally low. All hospitals can treat stab wounds or gunshots, while very few are equipped to handle nerve agents or radioactive poisoning. The subjects may also die horrible deaths.

Contrast these with domestic assassinations, like Boris Nemtsov (a Russian protesting the Ukraine war), done with ordinary guns. Or Sergei Magnitsky, who was investigating a Russian financial scandal. He was arrested and died in prison shortly before he was to be released. Many suspect there was governmental involvement in both deaths, but since they were entirely internal to Russia, the Russians controlled the investigation and conclusions drawn.


This is further speculation, but history may play a part. Georgi Markov was assassinated in London using ricin in 1978 (the height of the cold war). While the assassin was Bulgarian, the KGB were supposedly involved.

I suggest that comparable methods to cold war assassinations are used to send a statement that the (attempted) assassination is to be viewed like similar cold war acts.

The dirty nature of the attacks in recent years could also be seen as a warning to those hosting defectors


The effects of using "branded" weapons are:

  • Creates a prime suspect, with plausible deniability due to the absence of actual proof.
  • Strong media coverage of the assassination.

This is extremely beneficial if the organization behind the assassination wants to frame someone, but it is also extremely beneficial if the organization behind the assassination wants to admit the assassination while evading some or all of the negative repercussions. There are several reasons to admit and promote a murder (e.g. deterrent), and there are even more reasons to frame someone.


It's a demonstration of what they're willing to do

The Korean case is especially important. The assassination was in a public airport in broad daylight. Operatives brought chemical weapons into a crowded airport, through security, committed a political assassination, and vanished like ghosts before anyone even knew what happened.

This is new; the DPRK has so far mainly used its artillery and nuclear weapons to threaten its neighbors. Now, Jong-un is sending the signal to the US that there may be a lot more than conventional weapons at stake if North Korea feels threatened. How many hidden weapons and operatives like this does the DPRK have? How many of those operatives will leap into action at the first news report of US intervention in North Korean affairs?

For decades, a "dirty bomb in a suitcase" has been a looming fear of intelligence communities, and is one of the big reasons for nuclear containment and nonproliferation. But North Korea has nukes, has operatives who can get into soft targets, and has demonstrated their willingness to kill their enemies.

It makes the US think twice about the tactics used to stop the Kim regime.

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