Marianna Budanova

Poisoning the Wife

On November 22—a week ago—we assessed Russia’s options to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy:

Russia can attempt to compromise Zelenskyy’s food or drink. Options include novichok, a Soviet-made nerve agent, or polonium-210, a radioactive element. Russia has used both substances in previous assassinations and assassination attempts.

One of those options appear to have been used in an attempt to assassinate Ukraine’s military intelligence (Main Intelligence Directorate, or GUR) chief Kyrylo Budanov. According to news media reports and confirmed by Ukrainian military intelligence spokesman Andriy Yusov, Budanov’s wife and several GUR officials were poisoned with “heavy metals.” Marianna Budanova, a police officer and a psychology professor at Ukraine’s national police academy, is reportedly “doing better now as she has undergone the first stage of treatment,” according to Ukrainska Pravda‘s sources. Pravda’s sources also claim she was most likely poisoned through food.

Ukraine has not yet blamed Russia for the apparent poisoning, but in June Yusov claimed “There have been more than 10 attempts” on Kyrylo Budanov’s life. Also, while there is no universal definition for “heavy metals”, plutonium is usually considered to reside in this category. Other heavy metals that the World Health Organization considers of public health concern include:

            1. Arsenic. In the U.S., arsenic, a carcinogen, is one of the main risk factors for public health. In parts of ancient Europe, arsenic was the king of poisons due to its lack of color, odor, or taste when mixed in food or drink.
            2. Cadmium. Cadmium, a by-product of zinc production, is a carcinogen that can have toxic effects on the kidneys as well as the skeletal and respiratory systems.
            3. Lead. Lead is an extremely toxic heavy metal that has been used in the production of petrol, paint, and plumbing.
            4. Mercury. Mercury is considered the most toxic heavy metal in the environment. Mercury targets the brain, but it can impair any organ and lead to malfunctioning of nerves, kidneys, and muscles).


We assess that if Marianna Budanova was poisoned (at the direction of a foreign entity or not), she was likely collateral damage in an attempt on her husband’s life. Her near-constant proximity to Kyrylo exposes her to most assassination attempts against him.

          • In an interview with Elle in October 2022, Marianna said she has been with her husband “24 by 7” since Russia’s invasion began on February 24, 2022. And this summer, Kyrylo claimed he and his wife have been living in his officethroughout the invasion.
          • Also, in the Elle interview Marianna recounted a harrowing, apparent missile or rocket attack early in the invasion that presumably targeted her husband’s place of work, where she was also located. She implied that others in the vicinity (“brothers”) died in the attack.


If a malicious domestic or foreign entity is implicated in the poisoning, it would represent one of the most serious breaches of senior leadership security in Ukraine since the war began. Use of naturally occurring heavy metals or those that are by-products of manufacturing could also signal Russia’s attempt to somewhat obfuscate its role in the assassination attempt. For example, the use of novichok would point to Russia, which was implicated in the nerve agent’s use in other assassination attempts; Russia is the only country known to possess the Soviet-era substance. Heavy metals are also likely available in Ukraine, precluding the need to transport radioactive material or nerve agents from Russia.

We expect Russian attempts on the lives of Zelenskyy and his national security team to persist as long as the Russia-Ukraine war continues and possibly thereafter. Relatives and associates of these officials are at risk due to their physical proximity to and communications with the officials. In the same Elleinterview, Marianna mentioned that she maintains a narrow circle of communication because loved ones who communicate with her would be in danger.

Ukrainian military and civilian executive protection and counterintelligence professionals will almost certainly investigate the poisoning incident and attempt to improve security procedures, regardless of the source of the poisoning. As we noted in our November 22 post:

Improved air defenses, hyper-vigilant advance work by Zelenskyy’s security team, operational security and communications security by Zelenskyy’s office, and maintaining the integrity of Zelenskyy’s food “supply chain” can mitigate against Russia’s assassination attempts on the Ukrainian leader.

The same applies to Zelenskyy’s national security team.

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