A legacy of ‘secrecy and deception’: Why Russia clings to an outlawed chemical arsenal

Investigators already suspected that the weapon was of Russian origin — the intended victim was a Russian ex-spy living in England, and the attackers were identified as military intelligence operatives from Moscow. As the investigation progressed, the surprise was revealed to be the incredible power of the oily liquid in the vial. The scientists estimated that it was sufficient poison to kill a village. This is the equivalent of thousands.

This was Novichok, a powerful nerve agent invented by Russia. Just a year earlier, in 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin had declared to the world that his country no longer possessed such chemical weapons. The U.S. intelligence officers and British officials thought that Putin was lying at the time. This was evident in an English laboratory. Russia secretly had at least some of its poison weapons stored, and was ready to use them on any foreign soil.

Four years later, insights from the probe into the attempted assassination of defector Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, are helping to fuel worries that Russian chemical weapons could soon turn up in yet another country, with far graver consequences. The Biden Administration has warned repeatedly that Russia may be planning to use chemical weapons to stop the slow progress of its three-week-old invasion in Ukraine.

While the exact nature of these preparations are not known, former and current U.S. officials and NATO officers claim that Russia is in possession of a wide range of chemical weapons. This is despite many years of Russian promises. Officials and experts agree that senior Russian officials view chemical weapons as an acceptable tool to achieve a range of goals. These include eliminating political foes or subduing armed opposition. Russia has denied possessing chemical weapons and Washington and Kyiv have been accused by the Kremlin of planning to use biological or chemical weapons in Ukraine.

The Russian Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to our request for comment.

“The Skripal case was the smoking gun,” said Andrew C. Weber, a top nonproliferation official for the Pentagon during the Obama administration and an expert on Russia’s weapons of mass destruction programs. The idea that Russia might use chemical weapons in Ukraine is completely rational”

. Andrew C. Weber was a top nonproliferation official for the Pentagon during Obama’s administration and an expert on Russia’s weapons of mass destruction programs. The thought that they might now use chemical weapons in Ukraine is entirely rational.”

Russia had been laying the groundwork for such operations for decades, current and former U.S. officials said in interviews.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia joined the United States and 191 other countries in signing the Chemical Weapon Convention, which outlaws the stockpiling and use of substances such as Novichok. Beginning in the early 2000s, Moscow destroyed 40,000 metric tons of chemical munitions — ostensibly its entire arsenal — in special incinerators built with help from U.S. taxpayers.

U.S. analysts and officials say that not all was lost. Military laboratories that produced nerve agents such Novichok and sarin continue to function, and Russian weapons scientists have been allowed to pursue new weapons research under a treaty loophole that permits the production of small amounts of chemical weapons for defensive purposes, such as calibrating detection equipment.

Russia continued to work on Novichok after the Cold War, an effort that accelerated in the 2010s and culminated with the use of an enhanced variant of the same nerve agent in assassination attempts against two Kremlin foes — Skripal, in 2018, and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020 — and likely against at least three other opposition figures inside Russia, current and former intelligence officials say.

Meanwhile, Moscow also became heavily invested in protecting Syria, its closest Middle East ally, after the Syrian army used chemical weapons against opposition-held towns and villages in that country’s civil war. Despite initially supporting international efforts to eliminate Syria’s vast arsenal of nerve agents in 2013, Putin repeatedly blocked efforts to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when he switched to using chlorine — the common industrial chemical used to clean drinking water — in deadly gas attacks against the rebels. In Syria, chlorine gas was Assad’s preferred weapon to clear rebels from their urban strongholds. Syria blames the rebels for using chlorine gas to clear their urban strongholds. These claims were made again and amplified in Russia by officials on social media, as well as before international bodies like the United Nations.

The tactic was denounced at the time as cruel and cynical, but it at least partly succeeded. The rebels have been defeated in large part, while Russia’s false flags claims were accepted by Moscow’s allies.

Years later, Assad still has avoided any accountability for his actions, and Russia has absorbed a powerful lesson on how chemical weapons can be used to defeat even a highly motivated, heavily entrenched urban foe, said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a retired British military officer who commanded NATO’s rapid-reaction battalion for defense against chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

” If you don’t have morals, or any scruples whatsoever, chemicals would be used. Chemicals can prove to be an extremely powerful weapon as was seen in Syria. Bombs and bullets are limited in their effectiveness when you fight amid rubble. But gas is a different story.”

A steward of Russia’s chemical weapons program

The center of Russia’s chemical-weapons universe — past and present — is an industrial complex in Shikhany, a small town on the west bank of the Volga River, just upstream from the city of Saratov. Shikhany, a small town on the west bank of the Volga River, was once a military “closed” city. This was due to the secretive nature and research conducted there.

A network of labs and factories in Shikhany once produced much of the Soviet Union’s vast chemical-weapons arsenal, including sarin and VX, another nerve agent, as well as an experimental compound called Novichok, Russian for “new fellow.”

During the final years of communist rule, the complex was directed by Lt. Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich, an owlish man who critics colorfully dubbed “General Gas.” In later years, Kuntsevich would work with Americans in dismantling parts of the Soviet Union’s chemical weapons complex, while also — according to Russian prosecutors — providing advice and equipment to Syrian officials who were secretly constructing chemical-weapons factories of their own.

Kuntsevich oversaw what was then the world’s largest stockpile of chemicals, building on a military program that dated back to the Czarist era and underwent a massive upgrade at the start of the Cold War. The Russians demolished entire German chemical plants and rebuilt them at Shikhany after the Soviet-occupied forces discovered that Nazis had created new chemical weapons.

In the Cold War arms race, Moscow and Washington sought to out-compete one another in building the biggest and best arsenals of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Both countries reached an agreement to reduce their nuclear arsenals, and begin to scrap their chemical and biological weapons production facilities. The CIA would later conclude that Russia’s self-reported inventory of chemical weapons was incomplete, with several known types of munitions omitted from the list.

The destruction of Russia’s declared chemical arsenal officially ended in 2017, with Putin himself presiding over the ceremonial destruction of the last chemical warhead by remote video link. Putin used the opportunity to criticize the United States for halting a multibillion dollar destruction program that had been in place for decades. Next year, the last U.S. weaponry will be destroyed.

” We expect that Russia’s efforts…will serve as an example to other countries,” Putin stated during remarks at ceremony. He accused Washington of “not carrying out its obligations when it comes to the time frame of destroying chemical weapons.”

Yet, even as he spoke, U.S. intelligence agencies assessed that Russian scientists were continuing research into new chemical weapons. In August 2020, the Trump administration imposed economic “blacklist” sanctions against three Russian research facilities because of what it said was ongoing work on chemical weapons. Among then was Russia’s 33rd Central Research and Testing Institute, the main military laboratory at Shikhany.

The Biden administration added new sanctions in 2021, and expanded the list to include additional facilities in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Additionally, the White House named several Russians (military and intelligence officers included) as being involved in assassination plots against Skripal, Navalny. Russia is in long-term noncompliance to the Chemical Weapons Convention”, a top State Department official stated. He reiterated the conclusion of multiple U.S. agencies that have insight into the ongoing work at Shikhany, and other research facilities. “Russia’s noncompliance is manifest in far more than just Novichok use.”

The official, like other U.S. and NATO officials interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. assessments of Russia’s weapons programs. Others U.S. diplomats and officials described Russia’s ongoing production, research and testing activities, which included at Shikhany.

Although it isn’t known if Russia has a large stockpile of ready-to-use chemical munitions, such stocks are not necessary due to Russia’s ability to produce significant quantities of chemical weapons rapidly, officials stated. Key weapons facilities have been reconfigured over the past decade for production-on-demand, they said.

“They can make hundreds of kilograms of nerve agent fairly quickly,” said John Gilbert, who oversaw U.S. inspection teams in Russia under a Defense Department program that helped Moscow dismantle its Cold War chemical arsenal. It could be done in as little as two days .”

The facilities at Shikhany lack the same technical sophistication and safety system that industrial chemical plants elsewhere in the West. The Pentagon’s teams visited poorly guarded Russian storage buildings in which huge quantities of nerve agents were kept in rail cars with their wheels removed. A young Russian climbed onto the tops of tanks to check the contents with a dipstick.

Nonetheless, Soviet Union chemical engineers were skilled and many did not like the results of their decades-long labor, Gilbert stated.

” There was much hesitation just like there was among Army Chemical Corps troops in this nation,” Gilbert stated. It was almost as though their entire life had been ruined. And they didn’t like it.”

Ultimately, it was Novichok that served as a bridge between the old Soviet chemical weapon program and the Kremlin’s evolving, 21st century ambitions. It was developed at Shikhany during the last years of Soviet rule. This nerve agent is a state secret and Russia’s most deadly.

Novichok’s distinctive chemical formula differed from that of other known nerve agents, and because of this, Novichok was initially omitted from the Chemical Weapons Convention’s list of banned substances. Russia can thus experiment with the weapon, without violating any treaty obligations. Gregory Koblentz is a chemical and biological weapons expert and the director of George Mason University’s Biodefense Graduate Program. Officials from

Kremlin believed at the time that Novichok couldn’t be detected using standard Western forensics testing. Novichok was a great murder weapon, making it an excellent choice to be used in Russian intelligence services’ clandestine assassination efforts. Russia didn’t inherit the Soviet chemical weapon arsenal, they also inherited all the secrets and deception surrounding the program,” Koblentz stated.

The decision to attack Skripal was made by a turnedcoat spy, who was especially hated by Putin. Two military intelligence agents were sent to Skripal’s home in Salisbury (England) with around a third of an inch of Novichok hidden inside a modified perfume jar. Skripal, his daughter Yulia and a local officer were all severely injured. However, they recovered following aggressive treatment with British doctors who used atropine (a nerve-agent antidote).

The perfume vial was thrown away by the assassins, which is a common mistake made by professional hitmen. A British man was in treatment for his drug addiction and found the bottle. He gave it to his girlfriend and she died from the effects of the odorless fluid.

Moscow denies any involvement in attempted murder and promotes false narratives that claim others, such as Britain, are behind it. But as the investigation was underway, Dutch police disrupted an alleged plot by a different set of Russian operatives to hack into computers of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Hague-based international watchdog that was in the process of examining samples of the poison used against Skripal.

A reformulated Novichok gun was used in a second high-profile assassination attempt two years later. The attack was carried out inside Russia and Navalny, Putin’s most vocal political foe, was the victim. Navalny was able to survive, although he had to be allowed to travel to Berlin to receive medical treatment. Four laboratories eventually confirmed the poisoning of Navalny with Novichok.

The Kremlin denied that it was involved in the attack and suggested publicly that Germany or another Western nation were responsible. The question of whether or not the Kremlin thought that detection of the Kremlin’s signature poison was possible is still a matter of debate within the U.S. intelligence.

In any event, these attacks showed that Putin was willing to engage in “gray warfare”, a type of unconventional, highly lethal weaponized warfare described by Weber.

“We are familiar with battlefield chemical weapon use, as well as the things that terrorists do. Now, there is this: state-sponsored covert delivery to a weapon or mass destruction,” Weber stated. “This is a new category, and we need to pay attention.”

Up to now, each of Russia’s known attempts to use chemicals weapons have been accompanied by a public-relations offensive, of a very particular sort. Moscow sent top Russian officials to United Nations headquarters and other important venues after the Skripal-Navlany attack. They were armed with strong denials and concocted stories to try to divert blame. These false narratives were repeated in state-run Russian media, and then retold on social media platforms across the West.

Indeed, for Russia — just as with its similarly accused ally, Syria — the official denial campaigns are often as complex and elaborate as the attacks themselves. U.S. officials claim that Moscow is interested in a pretense to deny guilt, regardless how strong the evidence.

Experts and officials believe Russia might try to hide its participation in any chemical weapons attack against Ukraine in the future. Instead of using Russian nerve agents like Novichok it may resort to anhydrous ammonia and chlorine, which are substances readily available in industrial countries such as Ukraine.

Chlorine was used as chemical weapon in World War I. While chlorine is less deadly than sarin and Novichok but can still be used to drive urban defenders away from their barsricades as the Assad government found during Syria’s civil conflict, it has been proven effective. After giving up the bulk of its sarin stockpile in 2014, Assad used chlorine bombs dozens of times, as a siege weapon against entrenched fighters, or a psychological weapon against civilians in villages sympathetic to the rebels.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that such an attack by Russia may be coming, accusing Moscow of “setting the stage to use a chemical weapon, and then falsely blame Ukraine to justify escalating its attacks on the Ukrainian people.”

Any chemical attack could cause hundreds of casualties and possibly alter the course of the war. A true breakthrough will likely require huge quantities of chemical weapons, which would make Ukraine the site for the first-ever large-scale use since World War I. Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan of Australia, an Australian Army officer, and adjunct scholar at U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute, stated in a tweet.

“If we think the war is already horrific, we haven’t seen the worst of it,” Ryan wrote. If it happens, he added, “the US President and NATO will have a very hard choice to make.”

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