The sci­en­tist who leaked Rus­sia’s Novi­chok ‘con­spir­acy’


MOS­COW: Dis­si­dent Soviet sci­en­tist Vil Mirza­yanov gained no­to­ri­ety in the 1990s when he blew the cover on Mos­cow’s se­cret ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with Novi­chok, the nerve gas used in the poi­son­ing of a Rus­sian ex-spy in Bri­tain.

Mirza­yanov had worked for al­most three decades in the Soviet Union at the State Sci­en­tific Re­search In­sti­tute of Or­ganic Chem­istry and Tech­nol­ogy.

Af­ter he was fired in 1992, he and an­other sci­en­tist wrote a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle re­veal­ing how the gov­ern­ment had de­vel­oped deadly chem­i­cal com­pounds known as Novi­chok — or “new­comer” in English.

Now 83 and liv­ing in the US, Mirza­yanov de­scribed the so­phis­ti­cated sub­stances used to make the Novi­chok agents which had been de­vel­oped un­der a clas­si­fied pro­gram co­de­named Fo­liant, or fo­lio.

Novi­chok agents are bi­nary chem­i­cal weapons, he said, which means that their po­tency only man­i­fests it­self af­ter chem­i­cal syn­the­sis of rel­a­tively harm­less com­po­nents.

Since the same chem­i­cal el­e­ments in Novi­chok are used to make pes­ti­cides, fa­cil­i­ties pro­duc­ing these sub­stances can eas­ily be dis­guised as civil­ian fac­to­ries, he wrote.

Mirza­yanov said he had wit­nessed sev­eral sci­en­tists fail­ing to re­gain their health af­ter ex­po­sure to a Novi­chok-type agent.

“The dam­age it in­flicts is prac­ti­cally in­cur­able,” he said in the ar­ti­cle.

Asked this week about the March 4 poi­son­ing of for­mer dou­ble agent Sergei Skri­pal and his daugh­ter, he was quoted as say­ing: “These peo­ple are gone — the man and his daugh­ter. Even if they sur­vive they will not re­cover.”

In his mem­oirs pub­lished in Rus­sian in 2002, Mirza­yanov said his in­sti­tute and oth­ers in the coun­try in­volved in the chem­i­cal weapons pro­gram con­tin­ued their re­search even af­ter the col­lapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and as Rus­sia pro­claimed dis­ar­ma­ment and a ban on chem­i­cal weapons.

Bi­nary bombs had been de­vel­oped since the 1970s and were tested at a mil­i­tary base used for chem­i­cal weapons in a town called Shikhany in Rus­sia’s south­ern Sara­tov re­gion and also in Uzbek­istan, Mirza­yanov wrote.

“Like hun­dreds of other sci­en­tists, I was par­tic­i­pat­ing in a con­spir­acy against the fu­ture con­ven­tion on chem­i­cal weapons,” he said.

He had been put in charge of con­trol­ling po­ten­tial leaks of harm­ful chem­i­cals used in the Fo­liant pro­gram into the air and wa­ter­ways.

His mem­oirs de­scribe wit­ness­ing a rel­a­tively un­suc­cess­ful test of a pre­cur­sor to Novi­chok­type agents based on a chem­i­cal named sim­ply “Sub­stance-33.”

In the test, the sub­stance was de­ployed in va­por form via a bomb dropped from a plane.

The Novi­chok agents were not listed in the even­tual Chem­i­cal Weapons Con­ven­tion be­cause Rus­sia kept them se­cret, Mirzi­ayanov ar­gued.

Mirza­yanov be­came in­volved in Rus­sia’s nascent demo­cratic move­ment and wanted to make his con­cerns about the chem­i­cal weapons pro­gram pub­lic.

As a re­sult of his dis­si­dent ac­tiv­i­ties, he was fired from the in­sti­tute. He then de­cided to write the whis­tle-blow­ing ar­ti­cle in a Mos­cow news­pa­per along with an­other chemist, Lev Fy­o­dorov.

They warned of poor safety stan­dards at the Mos­cow fa­cil­ity and vast quan­ti­ties of harm­ful chem­i­cals stored else­where in Rus­sia.

The ar­ti­cle led the au­thor­i­ties to pros­e­cute Mirza­yanov for di­vulging state se­crets. He was ar­rested in Oc­to­ber 1992 and held for sev­eral days in Mos­cow’s no­to­ri­ous Le­for­tovo prison, used by the se­cu­rity ser­vices.

His case was even­tu­ally closed in 1994 af­ter con­sid­er­able in­ter­na­tional pres­sure on the Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties. Mirza­yanov has lived in the United States since 1996.

Rus­sia de­clared in 2017 that it had de­stroyed all of its chem­i­cal weapon stock­pile.

Mos­cow has re­jected ac­cu­sa­tions of in­volve­ment in poi­son­ing Skri­pal.

The State Sci­en­tific Re­search In­sti­tute of Or­ganic Chem­istry and Tech­nol­ogy in Mos­cow. (AFP)

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