The scientist who leaked Russia’s Novichok ‘conspiracy’

The State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology in Moscow. (AFP)
Updated 14 March 2018
0

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 Novichok-type 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.


Some see signs of hope on North Korea as Trump heads to UN

Updated 58 min 44 sec ago
0

Some see signs of hope on North Korea as Trump heads to UN

  • In the year since Trump’s searing, debut UN speech fueled fears of nuclear conflict with North Korea
  • The two leaders have turned from threats to flattery

WASHINGTON:North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is “little rocket man” no more. President Donald Trump isn’t a “mentally deranged US dotard.”
In the year since Trump’s searing, debut UN speech fueled fears of nuclear conflict with North Korea, the two leaders have turned from threats to flattery.
And there’s fresh hope that the US president’s abrupt shift from coercion to negotiation can yield results in getting Kim to halt, if not abandon, his nuclear weapons program.
Trump will address world leaders at the United Nations on Tuesday on the back of an upbeat summit between South and North Korea, where Kim promised to dismantle a major rocket launch site and the North’s main nuclear complex at Nyongbyon if it gets some incentive from Washington.
North Korea remains a long, long way from relinquishing its nuclear arsenal, and the US has been adding to, not easing, sanctions. Yet the past 12 months have seen a remarkable change in atmosphere between the adversaries that has surprised even the former US envoy on North Korea.
“If someone had told me last year that North Korea will stop nuclear tests, will stop missile tests and that they will release the remaining American prisoners and that they would be even considering dismantling Nyongbyon, I would have taken that in a heartbeat,” said Joseph Yun, who resigned in March and has since left the US foreign service.
Since Trump and Kim held the first summit between US and North Korean leaders in Singapore in June, Trump has missed no chance to praise “Chairman Kim,” and Kim has expressed “trust and confidence” in the American president he once branded “senile.”
But progress has been slow toward the vague goal they agreed upon — denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which has eluded US presidents for the past quarter-century. The US wants to achieve that by January 2021, when Trump completes his first term in office.
Although Kim won’t be going to New York next week, meetings there could prove critical in deciding whether a second Trump-Kim summit will take place any time soon.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has invited his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho for a meeting in New York, and Trump will be consulting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, fresh from his third summit with Kim this year. It was at that meeting in Pyongyang that the North Korean leader made his tantalizing offers to close key facilities of his weapons programs that have revived prospects for US-North Korea talks.
Yun, who spoke to reporters Friday at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington, said the US goal of achieving denuclearization in just two years is unrealistic, but the offer to close Nyongbyon, where the North has plutonium, uranium and nuclear reprocessing facilities, is significant and offers a way forward.
That’s a far cry from last September. After Trump’s thunderous speech, Yun’s first thought was on the need to avoid a war. The president vowed to “totally destroy North Korea” if the US was forced to defend itself or its allies against the North’s nukes. “Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime,” the president said.
His blunt talk triggered an extraordinary, almost surreal, exchange of insults. Kim issued a harshly worded statement from Pyongyang, dubbing the thin-skinned Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard.” A day later, the North’s top diplomat warned it could test explode a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean.
Tensions have eased hugely since then, and cracks have emerged in the international consensus on pressuring North Korea economically to get it to disarm.
The US accuses Russia of allowing illicit oil sales to North Korea. Trump has also criticized China, which has fraternal ties with the North and is embroiled in a trade war with the US, for conducting more trade with its old ally. Sanctions could even become a sore point with South Korea. Moon is eager to restart economic cooperation with North Korea to cement improved relations on the divided peninsula.
All that will increase pressure on Washington to compromise with Pyongyang — providing the incentives Kim seeks, even if the weapons capabilities he’s amassed violate international law. He’s likely eying a declaration on formally ending the Korean War as a marker of reduced US “hostility” and sanctions relief.
That could prove politically unpalatable in Washington just as it looks for Kim to follow through on the denuclearization pledge he made in Singapore.
Frank Aum, a former senior Pentagon adviser on North Korea, warned tensions could spike again if the US does not see progress by year’s end, when the US would typically need to start planning large-scale military drills with South Korea that North Korea views as war preparations. Trump decided to cancel drills this summer as a concession to Kim.
“Things can flip pretty quickly,” Aum said. “We’ve seen it going from bad to good and it could fairly quickly go back to the bad again.”