Novichok Victim Dies: Did the Kremlin Really Lose Control of its Deadliest Poisons?

The real question is where does the Russian criminal state end and the criminal underworld begin, and how do they work together in what amounts to a new murder incorporated?

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

When Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley visited the English city of Salisbury and somehow ingested the exotic nerve agent used in the poisoning of Russian defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter earlier this year, that already complicated the police investigation into the attempted assassination. Then, on Sunday, Sturgess died. She was a 44-year-old mother of three. And the police now have a murder case on their hands.

The masterminds of the Skripal attack, at least, are thought to be in the Russian government, which already is likely to put them beyond the reach of the law. But a new investigative report in the respected Russian newspaper Novaya gazeta argues there could be other culprits. The article claims that novichok, the poison suspected in the above cases, was sold on the black market in Russia during the 1990s.

Does this mean that the recent U.K. poisonings might have been the work of rogue criminals, not the regime of Vladimir Putin? It won’t be a surprise if the Kremlin makes that claim. And the Novaya gazeta piece, written by deputy editor Sergei Sokolov, does muddy the water around the U.K. cases— but it does not absolve the Kremlin of responsibility. Historically, there are many ties between the security services and the criminal underworld, with the latter often used as cover by the former.

Sokolov confirms that the Russian government sponsored the production of novichok at a secret laboratory as late as the early 1990s, and by connecting novichok with several high-profile deaths in Russia, including that of journalist and prominent Russian parliamentarian Yuri Shchekochikhin, Sokolov raises new questions about the use of this lethal poison in Russia itself.

In response to the Skripal attack, British authorities, insisting that novichok was produced exclusively by the Russian government, initially offered two theories:  either the poisoning was a terrorist act sponsored by the Kremlin or it was the work of rogue criminals who were able to obtain novichok because of negligence on the part of Russian authorities.

The Russian government responded by denying that its government ever produced novichok and even suggested that the Skripal poisoning was the work of the British.  Several former Russian scientists, including Vil Mirzayanov, who now lives in the U.S., disputed Russia's claims, saying that they helped to concoct novichok for the state in the Soviet period.  

Now Novaya gazeta has provided more documentary evidence, based on previously secret testimony in the 1995 murder case of a Russian banker named Ivan Kivelidi, that Russian scientists working at the Russian State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology in the city of Shikhany produced novichok as part of a top secret program.  One of these scientists, Leonid Rink, testified that a poisonous substance on Kivelidi's telephone mouthpiece was in fact novichok. Both Kiveldi and his secretary died from the poison.

What's more, Rink also testified that he had sold several ampules of novichok to criminals in the mid-1990s. According to court documents reproduced in an earlier Novaya gazeta piece,  8 or 9 ampules ended up outside the secret laboratory—either sold or in the hands of criminal groups. In each ampule, the poison was sufficient to kill about 100 people, and when stored in a sealed container, the substance is said to pose a threat after 25 to 30 years.

In addition, a former high-ranking general from the security services gave written testimony to Novaya gazeta stating that ampules of the deadly poison were transported to Chechnya with the intention of killing militant leaders, but some  "disappeared" along the way.

According to Sokolov, Novichok may have found its way into the bloodstream of his former colleague Shchekochikhin, who had plenty of enemies when he died under mysterious circumstances in July 2003.  A tireless and courageous researcher, he was investigating high-level corruption in the Russian state security service, the FSB, and the prosecutor general’s office, as well as the highly controversial circumstances of the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia and the 2002 terrorist attack on Moscow's Dubrovka Theater.  Just days before his death, Shchekochikhin was heading for the United States to meet with the FBI about Russian money laundering in a case involving the Bank of New York. He never made the trip. Instead he ended up in hospital, where he died after his internal organs shut down and he was placed in an induced coma.  

Novichok was developed as a binary weapon, meaning that it is composed of two elements that by themselves are not harmful, but when mixed together are lethal.  A leading expert in the field of forensic medicine who performed an autopsy on Shchekochikhin later told Novaya gazeta that the journalist had been poisoned by such a binary compound, but unfortunately blood samples from the victim mysteriously disappeared after medical officers from the interior ministry (MVD) became involved in the case.  And Shchekochikhin’s medical records were inexplicably "thrown out" by a hospital cleaning person.

According to Sokolov, another victim of novichok poisoning may have been the infamous "Black Arab" Khattab, a leader of Chechen militants who died in April 2002 after receiving a letter laced with poison.  (His symptoms reportedly were similar to those of the Skripals.) The murder was widely reputed to be an FSB operation. The unexplained September 2004 death of Roman Tsepov, who was a former bodyguard of St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak and had ties with "many dark figures" in the city, also suggests novichok poisoning, given that Tsepov's internal organs suddenly shut down for no apparent reason.

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In light of the testimony that ampules of novichok ended up in criminal hands, Sokolov suggests that the poison used against the Skripals was not under the control of the Russian state.  But he does not explain how such third parties could carry off this attack seamlessly and manage to slip out of the country without being detected. Nor does he offer a possible motive, which Putin and the FSB clearly had:  Skripal was deemed a traitor who deserved retribution.

According to the BBC, Russian security services had been following Skripal and his daughter for months before the poisoning and as far back as 2013 had hacked Sergei Skripal's email.

Scientist Mirzayanov claimed that novichok would require a high level of expertise to weaponize.  Also, in contrast to the testimony in the Russian court documents, he stated that “the final product, in storage, after one year is already losing 2 percent, 3 percent. The next year more, and the next year more. In 10 to 15 years, it’s no longer effective.”

In May, when Sergei Skripal was released from hospital, Putin made an ironic show of sympathy and suggested that was proof of the Russian government's innocence: “We wish him a good recovery," Putin said at a press conference. "Firstly, I believe that, if, as our Brit colleagues claim, that it really had been a nerve agent, then he would have died immediately. A weapons-grade nerve agent is so strong that a person dies immediately or within a few minutes. Thank god, he is getting better.”

Mirzayanov's analysis of the poison's shelf life makes it clear why the novichok was less effective than the killers had expected.

As the latest U.K. poisoning suggests, the culprits in the Skripal case were unprofessional enough to have left behind traces of novichok, which the British couple came in contact with while visiting Salisbury.  But sloppy tradecraft is hardly proof of innocence where the Russian government’s assassins are concerned. The alleged killers of exiled agent Alexander Litvinenko — Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun — who were hired by the FSB, were so careless in handling highly radioactive polonium-210 that they left contamination everywhere they went. Indeed, it is almost as if the murderers wanted to be discovered, as if they were taunting the authorities.

As former U.S. Director of National Intelligene James Clapper wrote in his recent memoir, “Getting its target audience to conclude that facts and truth are ‘unknowable’ is the true objective of any disinformation campaign." And perhaps the question of who from Russia sponsored the Skripal poisoning, as well as the poisonings of Shchekochikhin and others,  will never have a definitive legal answer.

But as one Novaya gazeta reader commented: "The Russian state and the criminal world have merged to the degree of complete unity — they simply cannot be separated … All the attributes of the state, its resources and capabilities — from the right of veto in the Security Council to the nuclear triad — are under the control of a very real mafia, and used to pursue its goals — personal enrichment, expansion of its influence."