A Cold War poison resurfaces in a quiet English town
MOSCOW (AP) — During the Cold War, Soviet scientists at a secret, high-security lab worked frantically to counter the latest U.S. chemical weapons. More than four decades later, the nerve agent they developed apparently turned up in a quiet English town, where it nearly killed a former Russian spy and his daughter.
Vladimir Uglev said he was the scientist who in 1975 first synthesized A-234 — an odorless liquid deadlier than any other chemical weapons that existed at the time.
“Hundreds of thousands could have been killed with what I produced,” the 71-year-old former researcher told The Associated Press.
Uglev detailed his deadly and secretive work, recalling how Kremlin leaders and the military were ambivalent about the chemical weapons program and eventually came to see it as burdensome and costly. And he described how the economic chaos that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse could have led to the lethal poisons falling into unscrupulous hands.
Britain said Russia used A-234, which is from a class of nerve agents known as “Novichok,” to poison ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England, on March 4. Moscow vehemently denied it had anything to do with the attack, which touched off an unprecedented diplomatic war between Russia and the West.
Moscow has argued that the U.S., Britain and other Western countries acquired the expertise to make the nerve agent after the Soviet collapse. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international watchdog group that analyzed the samples in the Skripals’ poisoning, confirmed British conclusions about the identity of the toxic chemical but not its origin.
Uglev and Leonid Rink, another top scientist in the Soviet chemical weapons program interviewed by the AP, gave conflicting theories about the attack.
While Uglev said the nerve agent could have come from Russia, Rink echoed the Kremlin line, alleging British intelligence might have used a less-lethal substance and then faked the evidence to implicate Russia. Britain has denied that.
Both scientists agreed, however, that it probably will never be possible to determine the nerve agent’s source.
“Imagine that you are dealing with a murder and a killer has left his fingerprints all around the place, but they aren’t in your data bank,” Uglev said. “You would only be able to identify him after you catch him.”
The victims’ improved health — Yulia Skripal was released from the hospital and Sergei Skripal was recovering — indicates they only got a minuscule dose, Uglev said.
He agreed with the theory that the poison probably was applied to a door handle at the Skripal home, perhaps modified so it was more viscous to stick better to the handle. Uglev added that the Skripals might have mitigated its effect by washing their hands.
ROOTS IN THE 1970s
The Soviet program to design a new generation of chemical weapons called Foliant began in the 1970s to counter the U.S., Uglev said. Soviet leaders wanted the equivalent of U.S. binary weapons — agents made up of relatively harmless components that turn deadly when mixed. The aim was to make their storage and transportation safer and cheaper.
The main Soviet research center was in Shikhany, a town in southwestern Russia. It was one of the “closed cities” that the KGB sealed off from outside visitors. It also housed chemical depots and a military firing range, where nerve agents were tested.
The research was dangerous, with no known antidote from the Novichok strain. Just a few milligrams — the weight of a snowflake — were enough to kill a person within minutes.
Uglev recalled a terrifying moment when he accidentally dropped a tiny amount of a Novichok-class agent on his hand.
“I rinsed my hands with sulfuric acid and then put them under tap water,” he said, adding it was the only way to survive.
Another researcher wasn’t so lucky. In 1987, Andrei Zheleznyakov was exposed in a lab accident to a Novichok-series nerve agent, and he died of multiple illnesses five years later.
‘THE NEWCOMER’ ARRIVES
By the end of the 1980s, scientists at Shikhany developed a host of nerve agents and various precursors for binary weapons that the military collectively dubbed “Novichok,” which means “newcomer.” Directors of the program, including Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich, received the prestigious Lenin Prize.
But the effort was only partly successful, Uglev said.
While some of the nerve agents were deadlier than their U.S. equivalents, the main goal of developing feasible binary weapons wasn’t achieved, he said. Some of the components were as toxic as the military-grade nerve agents and thus hard to handle safely — effectively not binary weapons.
And although Soviet leaders wanted to counter the Americans, they weren’t enthusiastic about chemical weapons in general, seeing them as excessive, when compared with Moscow’s massive nuclear arsenal.
Uglev recalled a 1986 meeting with a senior Communist Party official in charge of weapons industries who spoke dismissively about chemical weapons.
“He told me, ‘Why would we need something 10 times stronger than what the Americans have? Chemical weapons are obsolete anyway,’” Uglev recalled.
Military brass saw chemical weapons as a costly and unnecessary burden, Uglev said. He cited drills in which an entire Soviet armored division was sprayed with toxic chemicals to simulate a chemical attack.
“Freshly painted tanks turned into rusty monsters, drawing four-letter words from the commanding general,” he said. “Chemical weapons are just a headache for a modern military.”
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, his political reforms and closer ties with the West led to cuts in many military programs and an array of arms control agreements. In a show of openness, authorities even organized a trip to Shikhany for Western diplomats and journalists.
Novichok-class agents were only made in lab quantities and never entered mass production, Uglev and Rink said.
Uglev estimated about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) were made for research and military tests.
“It’s hard to imagine that any significant amounts could have been left anywhere, except in researchers’ personal safes, where it was allowed to keep no more than 20 grams” — less than an ounce, he said.
Novichok-related research also was conducted at a main Moscow lab, and both Uglev and Rink said samples were shared with other Soviet labs. Rink said some could have ended up abroad after the Soviet collapse.
Russia joined a global treaty banning chemical weapons that entered force in 1997. Last year, Moscow said it had finished destroying 40,000 metric tons of its Soviet-made chemical arsenals, an effort that spanned two decades under close international oversight.
Rink, who worked in Shikhany from 1970 until 1997, said U.S. experts made sure that even small quantities of military-grade nerve agents and their precursors were destroyed. Even newly built labs in Shikhany were demolished.
The U.S., however, couldn’t prevent the expertise from spreading.
Kuntsevich, the general who led the Novichok program, went to Syria, where he reportedly helped create its chemical weapons program in the 1990s.
He faced criminal charges in Russia in 1995 for helping smuggle toxic chemicals to the Middle East, and Israeli officials reportedly urged Russia to stop the operations. Kuntsevich died in 2002 on a flight from Syria to Russia, and Israeli media suggested he was killed by Israeli intelligence.
Under a 2013 deal sponsored by Russia and the U.S., Syria agreed to dismantle its chemical arsenals, but Washington alleged that Damascus reneged on its obligations and waged chemical attacks on rebel areas, most recently in the town of Douma on April 7.
Uglev said he turned down a job offer at a U.S. lab because he no longer wanted to work in the field.
“I would probably have done quite well there, although I could have ended up like Skripal,” he said with a touch of sarcasm.
A whistleblower scientist, Vil Mirzayanov, revealed the Novichok program in 1992. He was briefly jailed for divulging state secrets but released amid protests by human rights groups and moved to the U.S., where he wrote about the Soviet program.
After the Skripals’ poisoning, Russia said the expertise related to Novichok had been available to the U.S. and its allies via Mirzayanov and other leakers.
While the Soviet research on Novichok was known to international experts who drew up the Chemical Weapons Convention in the 1990s, they opted not to put the agents or their precursors on a list of banned substances.
Although Novichok nerve agents aren’t listed by name in the convention, they are banned by a general prohibition on any toxic substance used to kill or injure.
The U.S. didn’t actively oppose including Novichok by name, according to a former official in a U.S. arms control program who spoke on condition of anonymity because of continued government work.
The former official said the chemical first became known to the world when it was mentioned in Russian media in 1992. At the time, the chemical weapons treaty was already drafted and awaiting approval by the U.N. General Assembly.
“At that point, we were all so focused on getting the treaty into force,” the official said. “So the question of whether Novichok should be listed didn’t even really come up.”
CHAOS AMID COLLAPSE
Despite the U.S. oversight to dismantle Russia’s arsenal, Uglev said some of the nerve agents could have fallen into the wrong hands amid the economic and political chaos of the Soviet collapse.
Uglev, who retired from the lab in 1990 and worked in local government in Shikhany until 1994, recalled years of misery when wages weren’t paid. He said he couldn’t exclude that some lab workers might have been tempted to sell toxic substances.
In 1995, Moscow banker Ivan Kivelidi fell ill in his office and died in a hospital a few days later without regaining consciousness. Investigators determined that a cotton pad tainted with a nerve agent was put in his telephone handset. Kivelidi’s personal secretary and a forensic expert who did the autopsy also died.
Russia’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper reported that Rink acknowledged smuggling the substance used to kill Kivelidi and also sold several ampules containing a military-grade toxin to Chechen mobsters.
Rink was convicted of a minor financial offense, received a suspended sentence and never spent any time in jail.
He refused to comment on the Kivelidi case, telling the AP he sold rat poison to the Chechens as part of what he called a sting operation by Russia’s domestic security agency, the FSB.
“I sold it to the Chechen bandits and they were immediately apprehended,” he said.
In backing the Kremlin’s assertion that the Skripals’ poisoning and recovery wasn’t consistent with even a minimal dose of Novichok, Rink argued that Russia wouldn’t use that chemical. If it had wanted to kill the former spy, it would have used a more stealthy poison that leaves no trace, he said, noting the intelligence agencies have many of those.
Since a Novichok-class agent doesn’t metabolize in the body, Rink said, it is easily detectable and traceable to Russia.
“Novichok is a brand name of Russian-made horror,” he said.
National writer Jeff Donn contributed to this report.