Secret trial shows risks of nerve agent theft in post-Soviet chaos: experts

From Reuters - March 14, 2018

MOSCOW/AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The British government says Russia is to blame for poisoning former spy Sergei Skripal with a nerve agent, and most chemical weapons specialists agree.

But they say an alternative explanation cannot be ruled out: that the nerve agent got into the hands of people not acting for the Russian state.

The Soviet Unions chemical weapons programme was in such disarray in the aftermath of the Cold War that some toxic substances and know-how could have got into the hands of criminals, say people who dealt with the programme at the time.

Could somebody have smuggled something out? said Amy Smithson, a biological and chemical weapons expert.

I certainly wouldnt rule that possibility out, especially a small amount and particularly in view of how lax the security was at Russian chemical facilities in the early 1990s.

While nerve agents degrade over time, if the pre-cursor ingredients for the nerve agent were smuggled out back then, stored in proper conditions and mixed recently, they could still be deadly in a small-scale attack, two experts on chemical weapons told Reuters.

Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, remain in hospital in critical condition after being found unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury on March 4. A police officer was also harmed and remains in a serious condition.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday that there is no alternative conclusion, other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr. Skripal and his daughter, and for threatening the lives of other British citizens.

Russia has denied any involvement in the nerve agent attack.


Accounts of security deficiencies at weapons facilities indicate that, at least for a period in the 1990s, Moscow was not in firm control of its chemical weapons stockpiles or the people guarding them.

When Russian banking magnate Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary died in 1995 from organ failure after a military-grade poison was found on the telephone receiver of his Moscow office, an employee of a state chemical research institute confessed to having secretly supplied the toxin.

In a closed-door trial, Kivelidis business partner was convicted of poisoning Kivelidi over a dispute. At the trial, prosecutors said the business partner had obtained the poison, via several intermediaries, from Leonard Rink, an employee of a state chemical research institute known as GosNIIOKhT.

The same institute, according to Vil Mirzayanov, a Soviet chemical weapons scientist who later turned whistleblower, was part of the state chemical weapons programme and helped develop the Novichok family of nerve agents that Britain has said was responsible for poisoning Skripal.

In a statement to investigators after his arrest, viewed by Reuters, Rink said he was in possession of poisons created as part of the chemical weapons programme which he stored in his garage. On more than one occasion, he said, he sold the substances to supplement his income and pay down a debt.

The poison in the Kivelidi case was sold in a deal brokered by an ex-policeman contact of Rinks. Rink handed over the poison, in an ampoule hidden inside a pen presentation box, in a meeting at Moscows Belorussky station, according to his statement.

Rink received a one-year suspended prison sentence for misuse of powers, according to Boris Kuznetsov, who was a lawyer for Kivelidis business partner during the trial.

Kuznetsov said he believed his client was innocent, and that Kivelidi was poisoned by rogue intelligence officers acting without the knowledge of the Russian president at the time, Boris Yeltsin.

He added that he would share files from the case with the British authorities, because he believed they could be relevant to the Skripal investigation.




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