Soviet-era scientists appear to contradict Moscow’s claims that Russia never made Novichok nerve agent

'Russia does not possess such agents,' Vladimir Putin said last week

Harry Cockburn
Wednesday 21 March 2018 13:15 GMT
Russian diplomats move out of UK embassy following expulsion over Salisbury spy poisoning

Two Russian scientists have contradicted the Kremlin’s claims that there was never a state programme to make the deadly nerve agent Novichok, both independently stating that they were involved in the poison’s creation at chemicals weapons laboratories in the Soviet era.

Moscow has denied any involvement in the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, who were found unconscious on a bench on 4 March in the Wiltshire city.

Vladimir Putin’s administration has repeatedly denied any involvement in the case and has said neither Russia nor the Soviet Union developed Novichok at all.

“Russia does not possess such agents. We have destroyed all our chemical arsenals under control of international observers,” Mr Putin said at a press conference following his re-election as President on Sunday evening.

His remarks followed those of Alexander Shulgin, Russian ambassador to the Netherlands and Russia’s representative at the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Last week he said: “There has never been any programme under the group name 'Novichok' in the Russian Federation,” He added: “Back to 1992, Russia stopped all the activities in the area of military chemistry.”

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson accused Russia of building a “haystack of lies” to cover its involvement in the poisoning.

On Tuesday the UK’s Foreign Office said: “Instead of providing an explanation for the Salisbury incident, Russia has launched a campaign of disinformation.”

But independent Russian news outlet The Bell tracked down a scientist named Vladimir Uglev who said he worked on a programme beginning in the 1970s to create toxins to rival the US military’s VX nerve agent.

Mr Uglev said Novichok, meaning “novice”, was the name used for several substances developed in a laboratory in Russia’s Saratov region 600km southwest of Moscow.

In addition, RIA Novosti, a state-run Russian news agency, spoke to Cold War-era scientist Professor Leonid Rink who also said he had worked to create the nerve agent and named the same part of Russia as the location of the lab in which it was made, Reuters reports.

When asked if he was one of Novichok’s creators he said: “Yes. It was the basis for my doctoral dissertation.”

“A big group of specialists in Shikhany and in Moscow worked on Novichok – on the technologies, toxicologies and biochemistry,” he said. “In the end we achieved very good results.”

But he said it was “hard to believe” Mr Putin’s administration was behind the attack, and echoed theories seen on Russian state media that the British could have been behind the attack.

“It's hard to believe that the Russians were involved, given that all of those caught up in the incident are still alive,” he said. “Such outrageous incompetence by the alleged (Russian) spies would have simply been laughable and unacceptable.”

He also said it would be the “height of idiocy” for Russia to use Novichok given its obvious connection to Russia.

“There are lots of more suitable substances,” he said. “To fire the equivalent of a powerful rocket at someone who is not a threat and to miss would be the height of idiocy.”

Though the formula for the nerve agent was once secret, Rink said other countries including Britain, the US and China were now capable of manufacturing versions of the substance, however, analysis of the poison used in Salisbury should reveal whether or not it was “cooked up” in Russia.

Rink himself has a previous conviction for supplying poisons used in murders. In 1995 he confessed to having secretly supplied a military-grade poison for cash that was used to murder a Russian banking magnate and his secretary.

In a statement to investigators after his arrest, Rink said he was in possession of poisons created as part of the chemical weapons programme which he stored in his garage, according to Reuters.

Rink received a one-year suspended prison sentence for “misuse of powers” after a secret trial, according to a lawyer involved in the case.

Mr Uglev, the other scientist, confirmed he had worked at the same research institute as Rink, and told The Bell only “a few dozen people” alive can be familiar with the chemical composition for Novichok. He also suggested that the reason UN chemical weapons inspectors had not found the nerve agent was because there had been no production in soviet Satellite states and because by 2011, production had also ceased in Russia.

In addition, the substance was never declared to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Only declared weapons in Russia’s chemical arsenal were destroyed.

He also explained that of the four variants of Novichok, only the latest iteration - first made in 1980 - can be a powder. The three earlier versions were liquids, he said.

Speaking about the victims of the Salisbury attack, Mr Uglev said the outlook was dire.

“There is no antidote for these substances. With a probability of close to 100% I can say that as soon as the father and daughter of the Violins are disconnected from life support systems, they will die.”

Scientists from the OPCW have been invited to the UK and begun tests on the substance to assess its provenance.

Reuters contributed to this report

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