It’s a particularly deadly time to be on Russian President Putin’s bad side — 39 bodies, piled up since war broke out in Ukraine, collectively underscore the point.
Just this month, two former bigshots bit the dust.
Sergey Grishin, a financial fraudster and oligarch who sold Harry and Meghan their Montecito, California, mansion for $14.7 million, perished from sepsis on March 6.
Coincidence or not, this happened after he criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Virologist Andrey Botikov — who helped develop the controversial Sputnik V Covid vaccine — went in a less subtle manner on March 1: He fell victim to a belt around his neck.
Energy bosses, politicians and outspoken critics are among those who have paid the ultimate price.
Putin and leaders of Russia’s bloodthirsty Kremlin, according to Russian expert Jon O’Neill, have their fingerprints on at least some of the deaths that range from the mysterious to the gruesome to the seemingly accidental.
“Putin does not want to murder people directly,” O’Neill, co-author of “The Dancer and the Devil: Stalin, Pavlova and the Road to the Great Pandemic,” told The Post. “If he does, he gets exposed all over the world. He wants people appearing to kill themselves or seeming to die from unusual diseases. Putin wants to kill people on a deniable basis.
“At the same time, everyone in Russia knows that these people are being murdered. It sends a message to those associated with Putin: You better stay in line.”
Suspicious deaths since March of 2022 include Colonel Vadim Boyko, the Ukraine War’s chief of mobilization, who was said to have committed suicide. Just one problem: He was shot five times.
Meanwhile, Marina Yankina, a Russian defense official, plummeted 16 stories to her death from her apartment window.
Although the St. Petersburg news outlet Mash maintained that she had committed suicide and notified her husband before leaping to her death, O’Neill believes that the death of Yankina and other military officials can be tied to failures Russia is experiencing in Ukraine.
“It can’t be a mistake Putin made,” said O’Neill. “It has to be bad execution. Those people know too much about what really happened. That is why they are dying.”
Knowing too much can apparently be fatal if you are a would-be comrade crushed by Putin’s leadership.
“Russia under Putin has become a state where political opponents can and will be killed,” Professor Anthony Glees, an intelligence expert from the University of Buckingham, told the Sun Online.
“Russia under Putin is a mafia state, a network of vile criminals who believe that if they don’t hang together, they will ultimately hang separately. Death is always there to remind Putin’s cronies of their duties.”
For those with clout in Russia’s oil and gas industries, the death of Sergei Protosenya sent a collective chill.
Formerly the CEO of Novatek — a company with ties to the Kremlin — he and his family were enjoying life in Spain. But on April 19, 2022, his wife and two daughters were found at their villa, chopped up by an axe; Prostenaya was hanging from a noose.
The government-controlled energy company painted it as a murder-suicide. However, Fedor Protosenya, son of Sergei, has serious doubts.
“He loved my mother and especially Maria, my sister,” Fedor said of his father. “He could never do anything to harm them. I don’t know what happened that night but I know that my father did not hurt them.”
Oil boss Alexander Subbotin died May 8 of last year — allegedly of a “drug-induced heart attack” while attending a shamanic ritual.
O’Neill believes that these victims and others made the mistake of criticizing Putin cozying up to China at the cost of Europe and the longterm health of Russia’s energy sector.
“The fear us that Putin’s desire to control Ukraine and take Russia’s [oil and gas resources] to China is driving Russia into the hands of China, which supplies Russia with weapons,” said O’Neill. “The people who express dissent get killed.”
John Hardie, deputy director of the Russia Program at Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington DC, concurs.
“It’s a bad time to disagree with Putin,” Hardie told The Post. “There might have been a time when that would have slid. But tolerance to for opposition to the war and the regime in general has narrowed considerably.”
O’Neill insisted that there is a method behind the murderous madness.
“Some people you can disappear, but you want to kill them because it sends a message,” he explained. “Putin could have made [Protosenya] disappear and it would not have made much of a ripple. But he wanted it to be public.”
Similarly, over the course of the same month, April 2022, Vladislav Avayev and Vasily Melnikjov, gas boss and medical boss, respectively, were found dead in what looked like murder-suicides.
Avayev appeared to have shot his wife and daughter before turning the gun on himself. Melnikov reportedly did the deed by taking out himself and his family with a knife.
Like the Mexican drug cartels that use extreme violence as a graphic threat to anyone who may fall out of line, Kremlin thugs and other violent kingpins in Russia send similar messages, according to O’Neill.
“If you are a dissident, you may be willing to give up your own life for the cause,” said the author. “But you would never be willing to give up your children. Them killing you and your family, that will dissuade anyone else from failing to cooperate.”
Not every death is as outrageous as dismembered relatives and multi-shot suicides — some are attributed to unlikely accidents.
Gas executive Andrei Krukovsky fell off a cliff on Sochi. Real estate oligarch Dimitriy Zelenov happened to die after tumbling down a flight of stairs and whacking his head, and Vayachelav Taran, who made billions in crypto currency, died in a helicopter crash while flying from Switzerland to Monaco.
And then there is General Alexei Maslov, who became fatally sick after Putin kiboshed a visit to the former Army leader’s tank factory.
According to O’Neill, crafty killing is business as usual for Russian leaders.
“They are known as ‘liternoye assassinations,’” he said of a practice that originated under Stalin (for whom Putin’s father was a personal chef). “It means a death that looks like a natural death but is actually a murder.
“The most famous of the liternoye assassins was Sergei Spiegelglas. He famously said, ‘Anyone can murder someone. But it takes a true artist to carry out a natural death.’ Putin is carrying on that tradition with a unit of murderers who are former KGB killers.”