What is ‘Havana syndrome’, linked to a Russian intelligence unit?

The Kremlin on Monday (March 1) dismissed a joint media investigation which found evidence that a Russian military intelligence unit might be responsible for the mysterious health condition known as ‘Havana syndrome’ that affected US diplomats and spies across the world.

Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov said no evidence had ever been presented to support the claim and the accusations in the media were unfounded, according to a report by Reuters.

The Insider, Der Spiegel — a German weekly news magazine — and CBS’s 60 Minutes did the investigation. Here is a look at what the investigation has found, where the Havana syndrome has been reported, its symptoms, and if any of its cases were reported in India.

But first, what is Havana syndrome?

Havana syndrome refers to a set of mental health symptoms that are said to be experienced by United States intelligence and embassy officials in various countries. Generally, the word ‘syndrome’ simply means a set of symptoms. It does not mean a unique medical condition, but rather a set of symptoms that are usually experienced together whose origins may be difficult to confirm.

Havana syndrome typically involves symptoms such as hearing certain sounds without any outside noise, nausea, vertigo and headaches, memory loss, and balance issues.

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As the name suggests, it traces its roots to Cuba in late 2016. This was about a year after the US opened its embassy in the capital city of Havana after ties between the two countries were normalised in 2015. Some US intelligence officials and members of the staff at the embassy began experiencing sudden bursts of pressure in their brains followed by persistent headaches, feelings of disorientation and insomnia.

What did the investigation find?

The investigation claims that members of a Russian military intelligence unit, called 29155, could have targeted the brains of US officials by using “directed energy” weapons. The 29155 unit, which has been operational for more than a decade, has been previously accused of carrying out foreign assassination, subversion, and sabotage.

According to the investigation, there is evidence that places unit members “at the scene of suspected attacks on overseas US government personnel and their family members”. It adds that the first incident probably took place in Germany two years before the cases reported in Havana in 2016.

Where has Havana syndrome been reported?

Since the Cuban incident, American intelligence and foreign affairs officials posted in various countries have reported symptoms of the syndrome.

In early 2018, similar accusations began to be made by US diplomats in China. The first such report was in April 2018 at the Guangzhou consulate. An American employee reported that he had been experiencing symptoms since late 2017. Another incident had previously been reported by a USAID employee at the US Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in September 2017.

In 2019 and 2020, such incidents have been reported from within the US — particularly in Washington DC. One incident was even reported at The Ellipse, a lawn adjacent to the White House.

According to US media reports, in the past few years, its officials have reported more than 130 such experiences across the world including at Moscow in Russia, Poland, Georgia, Taiwan, Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Austria, among others. A New York Times report from 2021 said US Vice-President Kamala Harris was delayed for three hours as she was about to fly to Hanoi, Vietnam, after a US official in Vietnam reported the symptoms.

In India, the first such case was reported in the same year, when a US intelligence officer travelling to New Delhi with CIA director William Burns reported symptoms of Havana Syndrome.

What are the causes of Havana syndrome?

No one is sure. After the Havana incident, there was a suspicion that the syndrome was a “sonic attack”, which was carried out by Cuba — a country that had been hostile to the US for over five decades.

However, further study by scientists in the US and medical examination of the victims began to suggest that they may have been subjected to high-powered microwaves that either damaged or interfered with the nervous system. It was said to have built pressure inside the brain that generated the feeling of a sound being heard.

Greater exposure to high-powered microwaves is said not only to interfere with the body’s sense of balance but also to impact memory and cause permanent brain damage. Low levels of microwaves are also emitted from mobile phones but they are not targeted.

It was suspected that beams of high-powered microwaves were sent through a special gadget that Americans then called a “microwave weapon”.

The use of microwaves as a counter-intelligence tactic has been experimented with since the Cold War and both Russia and the US have made attempts to weaponise it. There have been reports of US embassy officials in Moscow experiencing mental health issues due to the suspected use of microwaves in the 1970s.

What do we know of Havana Syndrome in India?

As of July 2023, the 2021 incident was the only reported occurrence of the syndrome in India. Sources in the Indian security establishment said in 2021 that they were not aware of any weapon with such capacities being in the possession of an Indian agency. Even if there was one, it was unlikely the government would admit to having acquired such counter-espionage technology given the sensitive nature of intelligence work.

This article contains excerpts from an earlier explainer, first published in 2021. You can read it here.

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