Russia, praised for scrapping chemical weapons, now under watchdog’s gaze

LONDON — Last fall, President Vladimir Putin summoned a Kremlin television crew to his residence for a ceremony marking the destruction of Russia’s last declared stocks of chemical weapons.

The occasion called for a touch of theater: Shells were dismantled on camera, decorated with flowery Cyrillic script reading, “Farewell, chemical weapons!” Putin spoke proudly of Russia’s status as a peacemaker and derided the United States for lagging behind. An official from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the global body that monitors agreements to whittle down stockpiles, stood by, beaming.

Six months later, Russia has been accused of secretly producing a strain of lethal nerve agents for years, in what would be a grave violation of its international commitments.


A team of inspectors from the global watchdog organization his week joined the investigation into the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter Yulia, who were found unresponsive in the English city of Salisbury on March 4.

Britain has accused Russia of exposing Skripal to Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent developed in the last years of the Soviet Union. Russia has denied the charge.

If proven true, it will cast doubt on the work of the monitoring body, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for making chemical weapons “taboo under international law.”

“This is a real shock to the system,” as members question Russia’s reporting of its own stocks, said Paul F. Walker, director of environmental sustainability at Green Cross International, a disarmament advocacy group. He said that he was surprised by Britain’s claim that it had proof Russia had been producing the nerve agent, and that he had not yet seen evidence to back it up.

“They must have something we haven’t seen,” he said.

Russia has pushed back hard against the accusation, that saying the nerve agent used on the Skripals could have been produced in Britain, Sweden, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, or the United States.


Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov have each said that no Novichok program existed in either Russia or the Soviet Union.

But scientists have come forward to describe it. Leonid Rink, who worked at a Soviet chemical weapons laboratory, told the Ria Novosti news service that “a big group of specialists” had worked on the strains, and that it would be no problem for labs outside Russia to produce the nerve agent.

Vladimir Uglev, who worked with Rink, told The Bell news website that he helped produce four agents under the code name Foliant from 1972 until 1988. He said he believed that, by analyzing the remains of chemical agents in the blood, it would be possible to determine “where the specific dose was produced and by whom.”

He added that, based on what he witnessed at that time, the victims were not likely to survive.

“I can say with nearly 100 percent certainty that if Skripal and his daughter are taken off life support, they will die,” Uglev said. “They are now only technically alive.”