The world is still facing new unsolved cases of chemical weapons victims, for which all information and investigations suggests to Russia as the culprit. Even after centuries of fighting for a world free of chemical weapons, Russia does not seem to give up on research and development of chemical nerve agents, despite being a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention and a member of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The historic effort to achieve chemical disarmament, which began more than a century ago, culminated in the conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Convention entered into force in April 1997 and in its Preamble provides for “the complete exclusion of the possibility of the use of chemical weapons”.
The member-states at this Convention established the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in order to achieve the objectives of this Convention. OPCW, with its 193 member states, is working to make chemical weapons obsolete forever.
Over 97% of all stockpiles of chemical weapons declared by the states have been destroyed, according to an inspection carried out by the OPCW. In 2013, the OPCW received the Nobel Peace Prize for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.
Russia has a secret program to continue researching and developing chemical weapons
Despite claims that it has destroyed its stockpile, Russia continues to research and develop the chemical weapon Novichok, which is a nerve agent. A one-year investigation by Bellingcat and its partners Insider and Der Spiegel, with input from Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, reveals that the military scientists involved in the chemical weapons program were deployed to several research entities and continued to collaborate on a secret, dispersed program for research and development.
So, since 2010, probably with the help of research from the Signal Science Center, the State Institute for Experimental Military Medicine at the Ministry of Defense in St. Petersburg has been taking the lead in continuing research and development and turning the Soviet-era Novichok program into weapons.
Key to the researchers is coordination between the two institutes and a secret unit of the Russian military intelligence unit 29155, GRU. This unit was previously linked to Emilian Gebrev’s poisoning attempts in Bulgaria in 2015, as well as to Sergei and Julia Skripal in the UK in 2018.
State Institute of Experimental Military Medicine, Sergei Chepur and Unit 29155
The Institute of Experimental Medicine of the Ministry of Defense is a secret military research unit located in the vicinity of St. Petersburg.
The investigation found Chepur’s telephone number in the records of the telephone communication of the commander of the 29155 unit, Major General Andrei Averianov. Chepur’s number has repeatedly appeared in the telephone records of other team members who are the main suspects in the poisonings in Bulgaria and Britain. They indicated that he had constant communication with at least four team members, as well as that he visited the GRU headquarters during the preparatory meetings in anticipation of the 2018 Salisbury operation.
Artur Hirov, Andrei Antokhin and Viktor Taranchenko from the Signal Science Center were also in that communication. In 2010, Hirov founded a new center for scientific research set up by presidential decree, generically named the Signal Science Center, and brought in his former colleagues Andrei Antokhin and Viktor Taranchenko of the 27th Scientific Center (military institute that played an auxiliary role in the development and testing of nerve agents)
They specialize in research into cholinesterase inhibitors, a broad class that includes novichok and other powerful nerve agents. Arthur Hirov, on the other hand, specialized in the research of nano-encapsulation – an innovative technique that can achieve three effects that would improve the efficiency and ease of application of the poison. This delays the onset of the venom by several hours (which may be desirable in covert operations), improving the rate and speed of absorption through the skin, and providing an opportunity to mask the presence of the active ingredients in novichok (through the overwhelming presence of another venom substance in the victim’s body that serves as bait). Namely, in the cases of poisoning of Emilian Gebrev in 2015, and in the case of Navalny, the presence of other and much less dangerous poisons from Novichok was detected in the blood.
The correlation between the calls with the Signal Science Center and the members of Unit 29155, as well as Chepur’s visit to one of Signal’s addresses on 31st January 2018, after which he continued at GRU headquarters, suggest that contacts between Chepur and Signal are likely to be related to planning the Salisbury operation, says the Bellingcat investigation.
Attempt to poison Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev in 2015
In the case of the poisoning of the arms dealer Emilian Gebrev in 2015, in February 2020 the prosecution in Bulgaria filed criminal charges against three Russian citizens – Sergei Pavlov, Sergei Fedotov and Georgy Gorshkov.
In January 2020, Bulgaria expelled two Russian diplomats believed to be involved in the case. Bulgarian authorities believe Gebrev, an arms dealer, his son Hristo Gebrev and company manager Valentin Takchiev, were victims of “poisoning with an unidentified phosphorous-organic substance”. All three survived the attacks.
Asked if he knew why he could be a GRU target, Gebrev said there were two hypothetical reasons. One was the export of specialized defense equipment to Ukraine, which he said he enforced strictly in accordance with Bulgarian and European regulations. Another hypothesis is Russia’s possible interest in an arms factory he owned, which is considered to be of strategic importance to Bulgaria and NATO.
Sergei Fedotov was identified by Bellingcat in February 2019 as possibly involved in the Skripals poisoning.
Poisoning of Sergei and Julia Skripal in Salisbury, UK, in 2018
On March 4th, 2018, Sergei and Julia Skripal were poisoned in Salisbury with a novichok military nerve agent developed by Russia.
The British ambassador to Russia briefed the diplomatic community on the British government’s response to the OPCW report on the chemical used in the Salisbury attack. The OPCW report confirmed that the chemical was of high purity, with “almost complete absence of impurities”. This indicates quality production, in a controlled scientific environment, and is in line with the UK position that the substance used in the attack is a novichok-type nerve agent that can only be produced by states.
The UK’s assessment that only Russia had the means, operational experience, and motive to carry out the attack is supported by the following:
For the past 10 years, Russia has been conducting a research program to test the use of chemical weapons for assassinations and to train members of special units to use these weapons.
Over the past decade, Russia has produced and stored small quantities of novichok under the same program. This supports the public statements of former Soviet scientists who confirmed that the Novichok program existed in the 1980s and continued to be implemented by the Russian Federation.
In recent years, Russian intelligence services have maintained their longstanding interest in the Skripals. Sergei Skripal was arrested on suspicion of treason in Russia in 2004 and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was pardoned in 2010 and moved to the UK. Back in 2013, Julia Skripal’s emails were targeted by GRU cyber specialists.
Attempt to poison Alexei Navalny in 2020
The latest victim of poisoning is the most prominent Russian oppositionist that the F2N2 team wrote about, Alexei Navalny, who flew to Moscow on August 20 but was forced to land in Omsk immediately due to deteriorating health. Russian doctors treated Navalny approximately two days before he was transferred to Berlin.
The Berlin-based Sharita Hospital says a team of doctors examining the 44-year-old has found the presence of “cholinesterase inhibitors” in his system. According to them, at the moment, the specific substance was not yet known. Nerve gases and the so-called Novichok chemical group are also cholinesterase inhibitors.
As early as September 2nd, the German government announced that Navalny had been poisoned with the same type of Soviet-era nerve agent used in an attack on a former Russian spy in 2018. Chancellor Merkel called Navalny’s poisoning an assassination attempt to silence one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics. According to Merkel, there are very serious questions that only the Russian government can and must answer.
The German government has said that testing in a German military laboratory has undoubtedly shown the presence of a nerve agent from the Novichok group.
Britain and Italy have also called on Russia to explain what happened, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling the use of chemical weapons “outrageous”. A spokesman for the US National Security Council, John Lloyd, condemned the incident. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said any use of chemical weapons was a “violation of international law”.
On October 15th, the EU imposed sanctions on six people and one entity it believed were involved in Navalny’s poisoning. The detainees are among Russia’s top officials, including the head of domestic intelligence. The State Scientific Institute for organic chemistry and technology was also sanctioned, which oversaw the destruction of the stockpiles of chemical weapons from the time of the USSR.
The measures include a travel ban to EU countries and a freeze on the funds of named individuals and the Institute. In addition, EU citizens and entities must not transfer funds to the sanctioned. The penalties are similar to those imposed after the Skripals poisoning.
This project was funded in part through a U.S. Embassy grant. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed herein are those of the implementers/authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government.