The Latvian connection Is there any reason to believe that one of the scientists behind ‘Novichok’ is living in Latvia?
According to an article published by the French newspaper “Le Monde,” in conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Navalny could have ingested a Novichok-type poison of his own accord. But Putin didn’t stop there (or so the article claims): allegedly, he suggested that what happened to Navalny could be linked to Latvia — where, according to the Russian president, one of the scientists who developed “Novichok” lives. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that the newspaper article contained “many inaccuracies,” but didn’t refute Le Monde’s retelling entirely. Paris hasn’t denied the claims made in the article either. The Kremlin’s website has a press release about the conversation between Putin and Macron, which mentions the fact that the two presidents discussed “the ongoing situation around ‘A. Navalny’s case’.” Given that there have been no previous reports about a “Novichok” developer living in Latvia, Meduza tried to figure out who Putin could have been talking about.
“Novichok” is a class of chemical warfare agents that was developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. These substances were developed as part of a secret program and Moscow officially denies that Novichok-type substances were under development in Russia. However, three former employees of the State Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology (GosNIIOKhT) have openly state that they were involved in the project.
In addition, there are a number of Russians who are considered victims of Novichok-type poisoning, including banker Ivan Kivelidi (1995), ex-spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia (2018), and opposition politician Alexey Navalny (2020). At the end of 2019, the formulas for four Novichok-type substances were added to the Chemical Weapons Convention’s list of banned substances.
Who could it be?
Three people have made comments to international media on the properties of Novichok-type substances: Vil Mirzayanov, Vladimir Uglev, and Leonid Rink. All three are former employees of Russia’s State Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology (GosNIIOKhT), who worked on developing chemical weapons during the Soviet period:
During the Soviet period, Russia’s State Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology (GosNIIOKhT) worked in close contact with the military to conduct research on toxic substances. The “Novichok” development program was carried out at its affiliated branch in Volsk (Saratov Region), which is located near the Russian Defense Ministry’s 33rd Central Research Institute in Shikhnakh — a testing base for new types of weapons, including chemical weapons. After Russia joined the chemical weapon’s ban, GosNIIOKhT became the leading developer of technologies used to destroy toxic substances. The United States imposed sanctions against GosNIIOKhT and the 33rd Central Research Institute on August 26.
- Vil Mirzayanov has lived in the United States since 1996. As he has repeatedly emphasized himself, he was not a developer of Novichok-class substances: “[I] wasn’t a ’Novichok’ developer, but I was a participant in a program to research, test, and bring them [Novichok-type substances] up to a weapons level,” he explained on his Facebook page. However, at the GosNIIOKhT, Mirzayanov worked with the head of the department for countering foreign technical intelligence and, because of his position, had access to classified materials on ongoing development projects. Mirzayanov wrote a book about the development of chemical weapons in the USSR and published the chemical formulas for substances from the Novichok group in its 2008 edition.
- Vladimir Uglev was an engineer working under Pyotr Kirpichev, the chemist who led the group of scientists developing Novichok-type substances at the GosNIIOKhT, Vil Mirzayanov writes. But Uglev has been living in the Russian town of Anapa (Krasnodar Krai) for a long time; he told Meduza that he hadn’t heard anything about any of the “Novichok” developers moving to Latvia. Pyotr Kirpichev is no longer alive.
- Chemist Leonid Rink worked on Novichok-class substances at the GosNIIOKhT’s Volsk office (located in Russia’s Saratov Region) for 25 years. “This served as the basis of my doctoral dissertation,” he said in response to a question about “Novichok,” in an interview with RIA Novosti in 2018. Leonid Rink lives in Moscow; he told Meduza that he doesn’t know of any “Novichok” developers who lived in Latvia.
So why did Putin (allegedly) link Latvia to ‘Novichok’?
It’s possible that President Vladimir Putin mentioned Latvia because a person in possession of information about Novichok nerve agents has lived there since 2007. The person in question is lawyer Boris Kuznetsov, who has materials from the criminal case over the murder by Novichok-type poison of Russian banker Ivan Kivelidi. In September 2020, Kuznetsov handed over these materials to Germany so they could be shared with the doctors who were treating opposition figure Alexey Navalny at the Charité Hospital in Berlin.
Here’s what Kuznetsov wrote about it on Facebook: “Yesterday, through the friend of a German journalist, I handed over 132 files of chemical, medical, and forensic examinations from the case of the poisoning of Ivan Kivelidi in 1995, with a military-grade poison that was later called ’Novichok,’ to European Parliamentary Deputy from [Germany] Sergey Lagodinsky, for transfer to the doctors at the hospital where Navalny is lying.”According to Meduza’s information, Kuznetsov’s materials were handed over to the German side, but went no further.
“It seems to me that the only person in Latvia who knows the ‘Novichok’ formula is me,” Kuznetsov told Meduza.
In an article for RFEl/RL’s Radio Svoboda, journalist and researcher Mark Krutov put forward another hypothesis: according to a Russian investigation, in 1995, Leonid Rink sold two vials of “Novichok” to Artur Talanov — a Latvian citizen and former officer in Riga’s riot police. This was the substance that later ended up in the hands of businessman Vladimir Khutsishvili, who was convicted for murdering Kivelidi in 2007.
Translation by Eilish Hart