The poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter earlier this month has significantly worsened already tense relations between Moscow and the West. The crime marks the first chemical weapons attack on Western Europe since the end of World War II. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
Vil Mirzayanov’s home is located at the edge of a forest near Princeton, New Jersey. There’s no buzzer, just a gate and behind it a long driveway leading up to the residence. The trees are still covered with snow. The gate opens and a man with a high forehead and white hair stretches out his hand in greeting. It’s Mirzayanov, one of the creators behind the poison.
The 83-year-old wearing professorial eyeglasses walks cautiously. He invites the reporter into his living room and takes a seat in a leather armchair. He is ready, he says, to talk about the poison that he helped develop in the late 1980s and early 1990s for the Soviet government. A poison that was recently used in the first neurotoxin attack seen in Western Europe since the end of World War II. The substance is known as Novichok (Russian for “newcomer”) and it is used for an entire group of nerve agents. All of them are deadly. In fact, it is one of the most dangerous toxins ever to have been produced by humans.
“I’ve led the fight against Novichok for the past 26 years,” Mirzayanov says of a substance that has always haunted him for half his life.
He didn’t invent the toxin, he says, but freely admits that he was involved in its development. He says he tested the substance on animals at the time — on dogs and other species, which he then watched die in misery. The attack in Britain, he says, is the first time he knows of his poison being used on human beings.
Novichok is the chemical agent that was used to poison former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, a small, idyllic English city. Both have been fighting for their lives in the hospital ever since.
Tensions Worsen Dramatically
The attack using the nerve agent has triggered a serious diplomatic crisis between Russia, Britain and the entire West, with already tense relations having worsened dramatically. If Russia is unable to provide a better explanation, British Prime Minister Theresa May said earlier this week, then the attack will be seen as “an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom.” She said the nerve agent had been developed in Russia and, assuming that Russia didn’t lose control over the toxin, it’s “highly likely that Russia was responsible for this reckless and despicable act.”
Moscow countered that it had nothing to do with the attack and instead pointed the finger at other possible perpetrators, particularly the West. NATO and the European Union are currently deliberating over a response.
All because of Mirzayanov’s poison.
It’s a story reminiscent of a spy film. It involves undercover agents and oligarchs, betrayal and revenge. And nerve agents. It seems fitting that Mirzayanov himself is also a former Russian intelligence agent who now lives in exile in the United States.
He seems almost happy that someone has come to listen to him. And yet the whole world now wants to learn more about the kind of research he was doing in Mikhail Gorbachev’s secret laboratories.
Mirzayanov began working as a chemist for the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology (GosNIIOKhT) in the mid-1960s. Later, he and other researchers were requisitioned to a military laboratory responsible for the production of chemical weapons, a top-secret program that operated under the codename “Foliant.” In the mid-1980s, he was chosen to lead the institute’s counterespionage department.
Novichok is “extremely dangerous,” he says. “You’re holding death in your hands. It just takes a moment and then you’re gone.” He says a person exposed to the kind of dose received by Skripal and his daughter will never be totally healthy again. Mirzayanov saw how another colleague accidentally poisoned himself with Novichok and slowly died, despite immediately being given an antidote. He says it is 10 times as potent as conventional nerve agents and causes an extremely painful death. It can be absorbed by the respiratory tract, orally or through the skin. It blocks communication between nerve cells and muscles and leads to cramps, respiratory paralysis and cardiac arrest.
Mirzayanov says he’s certain that the Kremlin was behind the attack on Sergei Skripal. But how certain can one be?
Tragedy Strikes an Idyllic British City
The attack on Skripal in the heart of England is mysterious, there’s no other way of putting it. There are numerous unanswered questions: How the drug was administered? Why Skripal? Why now?
Skripal, 66, is a former Russian agent and defector, who took British citizenship and has lived since 2011 in an inconspicuous red brick house in Salisbury in southern England. On March 3, his daughter Yulia, 33, came from Moscow for a visit.
The next day, a Sunday, father and daughter drove together to the city’s historical center, home to a famous medieval cathedral. They parked Skripal’s red BMW in front of a supermarket at 1:40 p.m. and went to a nearby pub.
At 2:20 p.m., the two entered the Zizzi pizzeria, where Skripal is reported to have acted strangely. Witnesses said the sturdily built man began complaining loudly about the long wait and cursed, as his daughter ate quietly next to him. The two left the restaurant about an hour later and likely headed back to their car, but they never got there. At 4:15 p.m., they were spotted by passersby slumped unconscious on a bench in a nearby park. They have been unresponsive ever since. Both are still in the hospital, along with police officer Nick Bailey, who was also exposed to the poison after being the first person to arrive at the scene.
On Thursday of this week, 11 days after the attack, the park bench remains wrapped in a yellow and white protective tarp. Two police officers stand guard in front of the small park. A playground is located nearby. There’s a hairdresser next door, a gift shop and a New Age shop selling crystals.
“I was sitting with friends just a few feet away in a pub,” says Alex Whitty, 33, who runs a nearby café. “We thought it was a homeless person who had passed out. When I got home, I saw on television that it was a Russian agent. Unbelievable. An agent who was murdered. Here in Salisbury.”
Salisbury looks like a place straight out of the picture books. Located two hours from London, the streets here in this city of 40,000 are hedge-lined and could be the scene of a Harry Potter book. Low brick houses, narrow streets. Stonehenge is located nearby, as is, interestingly, Porton Down, the British government’s secret chemical weapons center. It’s home to a cathedral where a copy of the Magna Carta, the document that launched democracy in Britain, is on display. And now this.
Salisbury has become a crime scene. The secret service has taken over the investigation from the local police and Skripal’s home has been sealed off, as has the park and the cemetery where his wife is buried. After first advising residents to just wash their things, the authorities have now grown more cautious. No one knows how badly the area has been contaminated. The restaurant table where Skripal sat was destroyed under strict safety precautions.
Several hundred anti-terror police and chemical weapons experts with the British military are now on the case, trying to determine how and when the poison was administered. At the time of publication, investigators were focusing on the vehicle. The poison may have been applied to the door handle or it may have entered the car through the vent. Even the tow truck that was used to remove the car from the crime scene is being tested for traces.
The biggest riddle investigators are trying to solve, however, is why Skripal? And why would such a spectacular and risky attack be risked on him in particular?
In the world of espionage, Skripal, who is originally from Kaliningrad, is only considered to have been a peripheral figure. A former colonel with the Russian military intelligence service GRU, he was stationed in Spain shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is there that he was reportedly recruited by Britain’s MI6 in mid-1995. He was given the codename “Forthwith.”
The British claim that Skripal was extremely useful, even having supplied the MI6 with GRU’s complete telephone directory and the identities of hundreds of GRU people. He received between $5,000 and $6,000 per meeting as remuneration.
He doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression on the people who know him. “He’s a nice, normal person,” says Colonel Vladimir Koshelev, who was a former member of a GRU commando unit. They would meet and drink wine together.
The Brits continued to tap Skripal until his cover was blown in 2004, with a Spanish double agent having caught wind of his treason. A military court sentenced him in 2006 to a relatively mild sentence of 13 years in a labor camp for high treason. Just four years later, he was freed as part of a prisoner exchange and was allowed to leave Russia for Britain.
In England, he has led a relatively normal life without any cover, and it doesn’t appear he was too worried about his safety. Perhaps because it seemed rather far-fetched that a country would kill a spy it had previously swapped. Skripal hasn’t made any effort in Salisbury to hide his true identity: When he joined a local model railway club, he registered using his real name. Fellow members say he can hold his alcohol.
But in his new life as a Brit, Skripal has suffered an unusual number of setbacks. His wife Lyudmila died of cancer in 2012, and last year he was informed that his son Alexander had died in St. Petersburg, apparently from liver failure. In March 2016, Skripal’s brother Valeri died in a car accident. It’s a string of misfortune that British investigators are now reevaluating in light of this month’s events.
Regardless who was behind the attack on Skripal, the question of the motive cannot be separated from that of the substance that was used. Why, after all, would a military-grade nerve agent be used?
Was the point to silence Skripal? Speaking against that theory is the fact that Skripal wasn’t believed to be in possession of any valuable secrets. He left the GRU military intelligence service way back in 1999. And at the time of his release from prison, the Russian intelligence services had to have reviewed whether he would present any potential threat — otherwise they never would have agreed to a prisoner swap. Skripal’s old GRU comrade Koshelev also considers the idea to be absurd, especially given that other known traitors are still alive. “I really hope that Skripal survives,” he says, “that he is tormented by his conscience and is afraid.”
Was this a revenge attack? That would be a plausible motive for an individual perpetrator. Skripal did, after all, destroy enough careers that he many have awakened the desire for revenge in a number of them. But intelligence services seldom carry out revenge attacks, especially if they have the potential to jeopardize future exchange deals.
Perhaps the Kremlin was also seeking to send a message precisely at the time of Russia’s presidential election on Sunday. By deploying a military-grade nerve agent that can be traced back to Russia, it may be sending a warning to potential defectors and Russians living abroad that no one is safe.
That would jibe with the message Putin sent out in 2010, when a group of Russian agents in the U.S. had their covers blown — the same agents who were later traded for Skripal and others. Putin was asked in his annual question-and-answer show on television how traitors should be dealt with. In contrast to Soviet times, Putin said, there was no longer any special department for liquidating traitors. He said such means were no longer resorted to.
But, he continued, traitors would “bite the dust,” and the “30 pieces of silver” he received for his treachery would become “lodged in his throat,” and a man who chose such a fate would “regret it a thousand times.” It was classic Putin to provide two contradictory answers to the same question. Formally, he was denying the use of violence, but he was threatening violence at the same time.
On Thursday, the governments of Britain, France, Germany and the United States issued a joint statement noting that the UK has “thoroughly briefed its allies that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack.” That means that the British have shared intelligence data with their partners.
The statement says the countries “share the United Kingdom’s assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation.” Russia’s failure to address the questions asked by Britain “further underlines Russia’s responsibility.” It also implores Russia to disclose its Novichok program to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and to answer any of its questions. The statement demonstrated unity among allies — at the end of a week that began with cracks showing between them.
New Sanctions for Moscow?
With her dramatic appearance on Monday night, Theresa May made clear how serious the British are about the issue. She issued an ultimatum to Moscow, leaving a backdoor open for the Russians to provide an explanation for how the chemical weapon could have reached Salisbury if the government was not involved.
But as it has done so often in the past, rather than addressing the allegations or offering its help in the investigation, the Russians went on the counterattack. In the Russian capital, officials openly mocked the British. Maria Zakharova, the brash spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, disparaged what she called a “circus show in the British parliament” and cracked Sherlock Holmes jokes. Little wonder, then, that May accused Moscow of reacting with “sarcasm, contempt and defiance.”
The Russians, for their part, called on the British to go public with the British intelligence services’ knowledge about the toxic agent used and to turn that evidence over to the OPCW. Unsurprisingly, some in Moscow began suggesting that London was behind the attack and that it had been an effort to discredit Russia. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson announced that the British government would allow international experts with the OPCW to analyze the poison that had been used.
Since Tuesday, though, officials in London have been spending a considerable amount of time getting allies to back the country’s position. Initially, there had been discord between the Western allies. The French president’s spokesperson demanded more information and U.S. President Donald Trump at first delayed expressing clear support for Britain. But Thursday’s statement appeared to clear that up.
But what measures can the allies now take against the Russians?
The issue is expected to be addressed at next week’s EU summit. On Monday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas will attend his first regular meeting of EU foreign ministers. Germany’s new top diplomat didn’t mince words in criticizing Russia during his first speech at the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday.
For the EU, showing solidarity with Britain provides an opportunity to demonstrate that the bloc is prepared to work with the UK on security policy issues despite difficult ongoing Brexit talks. The EU could theoretically expand existing sanctions by adding things like additional travel restrictions for people close to Putin. But that, too, might be difficult given that a few EU members would like to see the existing sanctions lifted.
And NATO? Concerns briefly circulated at headquarters in Brussels that Britain might invoke NATO’s Article 5 joint defense clause. Under the clause, an attack on one member is considered an attack against all. But it would also require unanimity among all member states, which may be why Britain discarded the idea, at least for now.
Instead the NATO Council agreed on Wednesday to a joint statement. The “attack,” it stated, “was a clear breach of international norms and agreements.” The 28 allies also offered Britain “their support in the conduct of the ongoing investigation.”
At the same time, the U.S. sparked irritation with its refusal to include the name of the nerve agent — Novichok — used in the communique. The session of the NATO Council even had to be adjourned due to the American refusal. Ultimately, though, the Americans backed down, though the reasons for their original hesitancy remain unclear.
For now, the British government will have to decide for itself which measures to take. Given its view that the Skripal case was an armed attack, it could invoke Article 51 of the UN Charter and undertake self-defense measures.
Still, the sanctions announced by May on Wednesday — after the ultimatum expired — were far from the maximum escalation possible. London announced it would temporarily expel 23 Russian diplomats and suspend high-level contacts with Moscow. In addition, no member of the British government or the royal family will travel to the World Cup this summer in Russia. It’s not expected that these measures will do much to impress Russia. And the truth is the Britain actually did have possible measures at its disposal that could have hit Russia’s elite hard.
London has a very special meaning for Russia. The city is a playground for many Russians — something of a safe harbor. The City of London, as the hub of the financial industry here is called, is to a large degree little more than a massive bank where the world’s super-rich can securely park their wealth.
Every Russian oligarch knows that he could lose his assets at any time. And those who are rich in Russia also know that their wealth is only borrowed. Which is why Russia’s upper class loves London. It offers legal security — and the kind of institutions that are lacking at home. Money is relatively safe once it arrives in London. The British capital is like landing on Free Parking in Monopoly. It’s a place where you can take a deep breath before heading back into the battle for money. An estimated 300,000 people with Russian roots live in Britain. In addition to the super-rich, it has also long been home to members of the Russian opposition.
‘Oh, not again. Everything Is Happening Again.’
Russian journalist Leonid Ragozin wrote in a tweet on Wednesday that “London is the de-facto capital of the post-Soviet mafia state.”
British governments in the past 20 years, whether led by Labour or the Tories, have done whatever they possibly could to pave the way for Russian money to enter the country, including low taxes and lax regulation of financial transactions. “Investor visas” were initially open to all those willing to invest a million pounds in the British economy. That cleared the way to buy homes and property.
Billions flowed into the British capital as a result, and not just into accounts held in banks in the City. Many of the luxury apartments in the new, expensive residential towers stand empty, with the London skyline having come to resemble a gigantic bar chart documenting the wealth of its oligarchs. Just like the deep basements that have been bored into the earth beneath areas like Chelsea. Rich Russians have dug as many as six stories down to make room for their art and wine collections.
In 2015, a Deutsche Bank report called “Dark Matter” noted that London had become a popular site for money laundering and flight capital. Jonathan Eyal, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), says: “It is easier to park your cash in London than anywhere else in Europe.”
It began with Roman Abramovich, a friend of Putin’s and one of the world’s richest people. When he bought the London Premier League club Chelsea F.C. for 210 million euros in 2003, many began referring to the team as “Chelski.” Rich Russians bought renowned newspapers like the Independent and the Evening Standard, the bookstore chain Waterstones and the record label Parlophone. And, of course, they bought mansions in Hampstead, Mayfair and on Belgrave Square, which is sometimes jokingly called “Red Square.”
It was the new wealthy who shaped the cliché of Londongrad: They would hold champagne-drinking contests in nightclubs or wander through the exclusive Bond Street boutiques with thick wads of cash in their pockets. The moneyed elite has since become more discrete, though, now generally preferring to stay below the radar. It’s referred to as “stealth wealth.”
“I don’t see any preparations of this government to hinder Russian money flowing into the UK,” says the anti-corruption activist Roman Borisovich. If May’s government wanted to tackle the issue, it could limit the number of visas issued, revoke banking licenses from Russian banks and put an end to anonymous business deals in London. “They could inflict a lot of pain on Putin’s inner circle.” But he suspects that she won’t take such steps.
Marina Litvinenko could be found on Thursday sitting in one of those stylish, downtown London cafés that brings an hourglass to your table along with your tea. She is an elegant, 55-year-old woman with diaphanous skin and a penetrating gaze. In recent days, the past has painfully returned to haunt her.
She was in Berlin when a friend called to tell her about the Skripal case. She then saw in the internet the images of radiation experts in full-body hazmat suits and thought: “Oh, not again. Everything is happening again.”
In November 2006, Russia made it abundantly clear to the world just how far it was willing to go under Putin’s leadership to eliminate critics and traitors. That month in London, former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, Marina’s husband, died an agonizing death in the public spotlight. There are very few who continue to doubt that the Kremlin was behind his assassination.
It is only because three weeks passed between the time he was poisoned and his subsequent death that investigators were able to piece together the path taken by the deadly substance. They determined that Litvinenko met in the bar of the Millennium Hotel with Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, two businessmen who had also once worked for the KGB. Litvinenko claimed that he only drank a couple sips of the green tea that Lugovoi had offered him. He collapsed a short time later.
As later became clear, Litvinenko had been poisoned with the highly radioactive substance polonium-210. And his two former KGB colleagues had apparently had something to do with it: Wherever they spent time in London after the meeting with Litvinenko, experts were able to measure significant levels of radiation. But neither of the two was ever brought to justice. They were able to fly back to Russia, where Lugovoi is now a member of parliament.
The reaction in Britain to the Litvinenko poisoning was shockingly subdued. It was only in January 2016 that the judge overseeing the public inquiry into the case concluded that the Russian secret service had contracted the murder and that President Putin had “probably” approved it, but there have been no consequences.
And that, says Litvinenko’s widow today, may have been a consequential misstep. “London gave Russia a second chance to behave civilized. They treated them mildly. But Putin and his people regard mildness as weakness. They only understand toughness.” In the Skripal case, she warns against prematurely blaming Moscow. But she is also certain that Putin’s henchmen are capable of carrying out an attack such as this one at any time.
In recent years, several people connected to Russia have lost their lives in London under puzzling circumstances. Following the death of Sergei Skripal, some of the investigations into those deaths are going to be reopened, Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced this week.
In several of these cases, the trail leads back to Boris Berezovsky, who possessed excellent contacts both within the Russian government and to the Russian underworld. He was also a friend of Putin’s — before he transformed into a vociferous enemy of the Russian president.
It is said that, to protect himself when leaving his villa, he would have four identical sedans drive off in four different directions. Three of them would be empty of passengers. Despite these safety measures, Berezovsky was found dead in the bathroom of his home in March 2013. He had apparently been strangled, but it still isn’t clear today whether he committed suicide or was murdered.
A whole series of Berezovsky’s business partners have died in recent years of unnatural causes. One fell from the roof of a shopping center in West London, another died in a helicopter crash, yet another was hit by an Underground train and one more toppled out of a penthouse window. Could all of them have been accidental? In several cases, the police quickly closed their investigations — perhaps too hastily.
On Monday evening, the club of dead businessmen gained a new member. Nikolai Glushkov, the former vice president of the Russian airline Aeroflot, was found dead in his home in London. He, too, was a former business partner of Boris Berezovsky. Speculation surrounding the strange circumstances of his death have been rife ever since.
It is clear that those who fall afoul of the powers that be in Russia are living dangerously, no matter where they now live. Opposition activist Vladimir Ashurkov, who fled to London in 2014, says he feels safe and has become used to being watched. At events on issues pertaining to Russia, for example. “there are always people who behave differently and record things. They don’t interact, and they dress differently.” More in the “Russian style,” he says.
On Thursday at midday, Theresa May visited the scene of the crime in Salisbury. Wearing a dark-blue overcoat and leopard-print loafers, she was led to the bench onto which Skripal collapsed and to the pub where he had been before that. Uniformed schoolboys held up their mobile phones to take pictures as May said a few friendly words to shopkeepers in the neighborhood.
She also spoke with first responders and visited the police officer who attended to Skripal and who is now in the hospital. His cars have been impounded, his home sealed off and his family quarantined. Nobody knows how far the poison may have spread; there is simply too little known about the substance. But there seem to be plenty of traces and up to 500 people may have come into contact with the toxin. That, in fact, may help explain why May’s reaction has been so severe.
The Skripal case has intensified the ongoing escalation of tensions between the West and Russia that has been underway since Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. There was a brief moment after the end of the Cold War during which Russia was a partner to the West. Now, though, the country has once again become an enemy.
German intelligence officials have been keeping close track of the development. Thus far, to be sure, no Kremlin-ordered murders have been carried out on German soil. But security officials are concerned about the activities of both the GRU, Putin’s military intelligence agency, and of the foreign intelligence agency SVR. They have repeatedly observed suspected Russian spies as they seek to recruit informants.
Officials have also identified encrypted satellite signals that they believe carry instructions to undercover Russian agents in Germany. On the basis of these signals, officials believe that there is a double-digit number of as-yet undiscovered Russian agents operating on German soil.
According to sources within Germany’s security apparatus, concern about Russian spying was a primary catalyst for the revival of a secret unit within the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency. With the Cold War having come to an end, the BND ceased counterespionage activities in the 1990s. But according to information obtained by DER SPIEGEL, the BND has once again established a “counterespionage” unit. It is still being developed and is focused on information pertaining to foreign intelligence services, primarily those from Russia. For the time being, the unit consists of a low, double-digit number of agents, but plans call for it to be expanded to 50.
At the main building of the British Ministry of Defense at Whitehall, further reprisals are currently under consideration. Just a few days after the nerve agent attack, May’s government issued a statement saying that “offensive cyber can be used to deal with serious threats to the UK … to meet those threats head-on.”
The tabloid daily The Sun printed a map on Wednesday listing possible targets of such an offensive in Russia. According to the paper, which cites anonymous sources inside Whitehall, hackers working for the British government would be capable of paralyzing industrial, transportation and/or military facilities. The article included images of the Moscow subway, Russian power plants and Putin holding his mobile phone.
Even before the Skripal case, British military and intelligence officials openly threatened Russia with cyberattacks — in response to Russian hacker attacks. The UK has possessed the necessary technological capabilities to carry out offensive cyberoperations for years — and the country has demonstrated few scruples in the past when it comes to using them. From the trove of documents made public by whistleblower Edward Snowden, it is clear that even the National Security Agency (NSA) in the U.S. is envious of some of the things their partner in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance is capable of. International experts believe the UK is just as capable in this arena as the U.S. and at least as powerful as Russia.
A ‘Compelling Chain of Clues’
The key to the Skripal case is to be found in the toxin that was used. When the British briefed their German colleagues this week, they didn’t go into great detail, according to sources in German security circles. Intelligence services suspect that could be because the British no longer completely trust the Americans and are particularly wary of Donald Trump.
The British didn’t even tell their German counterparts which variation of the nerve agent they believe was used. Western intelligence experts suspect that it was Novichok of the A-232 variety, which is fluid enough to be used as a spray.
The vocabulary used by the UK and its allies indicates that British intelligence officials are highly confident in their assessment. Yet although it is clear which substance was used and that it very likely came from Russian stockpiles, there is no definitive proof that the Russian state was behind the attack, according to a senior German official on Thursday evening. The official has read through all of the documents that have thus far been presented. He said that intelligence officials are viewing the evidence laid out in those documents — several tightly printed pages — as a “compelling chain of clues.”
Either way, the trail of the nerve agent used in Salisbury clearly leads to Moscow and back into the chemical weapons program once operated by the Soviet Union.
Officially, Russia no longer possesses any chemical weapons. On Sept. 27, 2017, Russian television viewers watched as Vladimir Putin issued an order from Moscow for a shell containing chemical agents be destroyed in faraway Udmurtia. With that, it was said, what had once been the largest chemical weapons arsenal in the world was history. But Western intelligence officials have long known that the Russians never completely eliminated stockpiles of Novichok.
The history of Russia’s chemical weapons program began shortly after the October Revolution in 1917. The Bolsheviks at the time were extremely interested in the new toxic agents. In Shikhany, on the banks of the Volga River, experts from Germany trained the new regime in handling the weapons and Shikhany went on to become a satellite location of the state research institute GosNIIOKhT. Its headquarters are still to be found in Moscow, at Way of Enthusiasts No. 13.
Starting in the 1970s, this institute focused on developing a new generation of chemical weapons that were to be both particularly effective and undetectable to Russia’s potential enemies in the West. The group of agents named Novichok remained strictly confidential.
As Vil Mirzayanov — the man who lives in New Jersey — slowly began to realize the amount of damage the poisons they were developing could do, his pangs of conscience began growing. “What am I doing? Why do we need this?” Those were the questions, says Mirzayanov, that began plaguing him and which led him to go public. He didn’t want to be responsible for civilian deaths, he says, and was afraid of the poison.
He and his colleague Lev Fyodorov revealed the existence of the poison in the early 1990s in the Moscow newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti. Surprisingly, few believed them. But then, Mirzayanov was dismissed and arrested on accusations of high treason. The investigation lasted one-and-a-half years. He was imprisoned twice and lost his job; later, he sold candy on the streets of Moscow to support his family. Finally, the charges against him were dropped due to pressure from prominent supporters in Russia and abroad. He received permission to emigrate to the United States.
How Certain Is Certain?
Why are Mirzayanov and Western intelligence agencies so sure that the Russian state is behind the use of Novichok in Salisbury?
There is a report that a substance was used in a 1995 murder that at least resembles Novichok. The victim was a prominent businessman in Moscow named Ivan Kivelidi, a banker and the head of a Russian trade association.
Investigators became suspicious after his secretary died, as did the pathologist who examined Kivelidi’s liver. They concluded that a nerve agent had been applied to the victim’s telephone receiver — and say that an employee of the chemical laboratory in Shikhany — the satellite of the Moscow-based institute — had supplied the poison. In 2007, a business partner of Kivelidi’s was convicted of the murder, though the trial took place behind closed doors because it dealt with Russian military secrets.
If the official version of the Kivelidi case is true, that would mean that in the chaotic years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, private persons may have gained possession of chemical weapons.
Mirzayanov considers that to be unlikely. “Chemical weapons were securely stored in the 1990s too,” he says. “It’s not easy to smuggle these substances out of the laboratory.” He believes that Kivelidi wasn’t killed using Novichok, but with the better-known nerve agent VX.
In the Skripal case, Mirzayanov can’t imagine that anybody but the Kremlin could be behind it. “The Russians thought that nobody could identify Novichok,” he says. “To do so, experts need a reference sample and people in Moscow apparently thought that the poison was undetectable.” Mirzayanov believes that the British may have received a reference sample of the Soviet nerve agent from the Americans, allowing them to confirm the use of the substance.
Could the agent theoretically have come from stockpiles in other countries? “The toxin was only produced in Russia,” Mirzayanov says. “You need a lot of time and money to develop formulas to the point that they can be deployed as biological weapons. I think they have researched the properties of Novichok but do not produce it. I don’t think that any government would be prepared to invest the vast amount of resources needed to develop the necessary technologies.”
Mirzayanov says he suspects that the components of the substance were brought to Britain separately, perhaps even in a diplomatic pouch, though that’s nothing more than speculation. Indeed, the question as to how the nerve agent found its way into the country is one that investigators are extremely interested in.
Before its use, Mirzayanov says, the components could have been mixed together in a special pistol. The assassin, he says, would have to have been extremely well prepared so as not to endanger him- or herself.
Darkness has fallen outside and Mirzayanov becomes pensive. Is he afraid that he, too, could be targeted?
“I’m not afraid. If I start fearing for my life, then it’s not life anymore. Just paranoia.”
By Christian Esch, Matthias Gebauer, Julia Amalia Heyer, Peter Müller, Valentyna Polunina, Tobias Rapp, Mathieu von Rohr, Marcel Rosenbach, Christoph Scheuermann, Jörg Schindler, Fidelius Schmid and Christoph Schult