Russian denial of secret nerve agent program seemingly contradicted by own state media

Russia has denied the existence of the so-called Novichok program.

March 20, 2018, 5:32 PM

Moscow -- Among Russia's denials that it cannot have been involved in the poisoning of the former spy in Britain two weeks ago is a claim by its foreign ministry that Russia and the Soviet Union never had a program to develop the type of nerve agent that British authorities say was used in the attack, known as "Novichok."

But on Tuesday, one of Russia’s main state news agencies published an interview with a man who said he had overseen the creation of the series of nerve agents in a Soviet government lab.

The exclusive interview published by the news agency, RIA Novosti, had sought to highlight a Russian argument that the type of nerve agent used to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal could have been produced in Britain, but it seemed to inadvertently undercut denials by senior Russian officials that the program developing Novichok agents ever existed.

The man, Leonid Rink, said he had overseen a team at a Soviet government lab in central Russia developing the nerve agents. Rink said he had worked for 27 years at the state Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology in the town of Shikhani. In the article, RIA Novosti refers to Rink as “the creator of Novichok.”

“Novichok was worked on by a big group of specialists in Shikhani And Moscow,” Rink told RIA Novosti. “And the end results were very good.”

Last Thursday, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov had said categorically there had never been a Novichok program.

Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia's GRU military intelligence service, looks on inside the defendants' cage as he attends a hearing at the Moscow military district court, Russia, Aug. 9, 2006.

“I want to state with all possible certainty, that there was no sort of program around the development of 'PS' [poisonous substances] under the name 'Novichok,' neither in the USSR, no in the Russian Federation,” Ryabkov told the Russian news agency Interfax. Around the same time Rink’s interview was published Tuesday, Ryabkov was again quoted by Interfax denying a Novichok program had ever existed.

Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s ambassador to United Nations, also denied denied Russia had ever had a Novichok program, alleging the United Kingdom might have staged the poisoning to "tarnish" Russia.

The Russian denials had already conflicted with evidence provided by another Russian scientist, Vil Mirzayanov, who had worked in the country's chemical weapons program and blew the whistle on the Novichok program in the early 1990s. Mirzayanov emigrated to the U.S. after revealing details of the Novichok program in an article and speaking to American journalists.

According to those accounts, Novichok -- which means “newcomer” or “the new guy” in Russian -- weapons were developed as a new generation of nerve agents, intended to be more potent and harder to detect. Rink confirmed Mirzayanov’s account about the Novichok program, saying the Soviet team had worked on ensuring the nerve agent was “effective and active in all types of means of delivery.”

PHOTO: Specialists in protective suits secure the forensic tent on March 8, 2018, that had been blown over by the wind and is covering the bench where Sergei Skripal was found with his daughter after an apparent nerve agent attack, in Salisbury, England.
Specialists in protective suits secure the police forensic tent on March 8, 2018, that had been blown over by the wind and is covering the bench where Sergei Skripal was found with his daughter after an apparent nerve agent attack, in Salisbury, England.

Rink's work at the institute has previously been confirmed: In a 1995 court case, Russian prosecutors accused Rink of selling a Novichok nerve agent to be used in a criminal hit. According to Reuters, Rink received a suspended one-year sentence after admitting to selling the nerve agent, which he was storing in his garage.

"Incidentally, Novichok is not a substance,” Rink told RIA Novosti. “It’s a whole chemical weapons system. The weapons system adopted in the USSR was called 'Novichok-5.' Without the number, the name wasn’t used."

Since the U.K.’s Prime Minister Theresa May announced a week ago that a Novichok nerve agent was used in the attack in Salisbury, England, Russian officials have put out a shifting series of denials that have graduated from accusing the U.K. of exploiting the attack to stoke anti-Russian feeling to suggesting U.K. intelligence could have carried it out itself.

The Kremlin has said that Russia has destroyed all its chemical weapons, and President Vladimir Putin on Sunday called allegations of Russia’s involvement “nonsense” and said Russia had no motive for the attack.

On Sunday, Maria Zakharova, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, alleged that Sweden, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, as well as the U.K. and the United States were the “most likely” source of the nerve agent, saying they had researched the Russian nerve agent after it was revealed by Soviet scientists like Mirzayanov.

The Russian denials may rely on a semantic dodge: In making them, Russian officials have focused on the idea that the programs the nerve agents were developed under were not officially called “Novichok"; according to Mirzayanov, one of the programs for example was codenamed “Foliant.” Russian officials have claimed that the nerve agents were not referred to as Novichoks in Russia, something that Rink's interview appears to contradict.

This undated image taken from the Facebook page of Yulia Skripal on March 8, 2018 allegedly shows Yulia Skripal, the daughter of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, in an unknown location.

Boris Johnson, the U.K.'s foreign minister, has said the repeated Russian denials were becoming "increasingly absurd."

"At one time they say they never made Novichok. At another time they say they did make Novichok, but all the stocks have been destroyed. Then again, they say they made Novichok and all the stocks have been destroyed, but some of them have mysteriously escaped to Sweden or the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or the United States or even the United Kingdom," Johnson told reporters. "This is a classic Russian strategy of trying to conceal the needle of truth in a haystack of lies and obfuscation."

In the interview, Rink also said he did not believe Russia was involved in Sergei Skripal's poisoning, arguing Russia has no motive and that if Russia had used it, the ex-spy would not be alive.

“To fire a powerful rocket at an irrelevant person and, moreover, miss, is the height of folly,” Rink said. “For now they are all still alive. That means, either it’s not the Novichok system at all, or it was badly 'brewed' or shoddily used,” he said.

Rink said that any major power could easily make Novichok agents now and suggested the British could have done so.

Rink also dismissed a theory suggested in British newspaper The Telegraph last week that the nerve agent could have been brought from Russia hidden in Yulia Skirpal’s suitcase, saying it would not have survived the journey. U.S. intelligence sources have told ABC News that investigators are currently focused on Sergei Skripal's car as the likely place the two were exposed.

Russia’s contradictory versions recalled its reaction to the downing of the passenger airliner Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 that killed 283 people. Most evidence has come to show that the plane was brought down accidentally by pro-Russian rebels, using a surface-to-air missile supplied by Russia.

Russia's military and its state media have put out multiple self-contradictory versions seeking to lay the blame on Ukraine, sometimes even presenting fake evidence that contradicted earlier fake evidence.

Russian state TV released a satellite image purporting to show a Ukrainian warplane shot down the airliner, but dropped it when the image was quickly shown to be a badly photoshopped fake. Russia's military was then caught doctoring satellite imagery to show the surface-to-air missile must have been Ukrainian. Russian officials have claimed investigations showing rebel involvement are part of a conspiracy against Russia.