Russia has a secret chemical weapons program, and its scientists have been in contact with suspected Russian assassins, investigation says

  • A year-long investigation by Bellingcat conducted in partnership with international media outlets concluded that Russia is operating a clandestine Novichok program.
  • Novichok is the nerve agent used to poison ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal in 2018 and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny this past summer.
  • Facing allegations that it was behind the attacks, Russia claims it destroyed its chemical weapons stockpiles and has denied any involvement in the poisonings.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Despite claims it destroyed its stockpiles, Russia continues to research and develop the chemical weapon Novichok, a nerve agent Russian agents are suspected of using in high-profile attacks, an international investigation said Friday.

The nerve agent Novichok was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and was used against former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK in 2018 and, in August, against Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Russia has denied allegations that it was behind the attacks, arguing that it does not have a chemical weapons program.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed in 2017 that Russia had destroyed its chemical weapons stockpiles, but a year-long investigation conducted by Bellingcat — in partnership with Russia's The Insider, Germany's Der Spiegel, and US-funded RFE/RL — concluded that Russian military scientists involved in the original Novichok program continue their work at civilian research institutes while other scientists camouflaged their work within the Russian Ministry of Defense as research into organophosphate poisons, of which Novichok is a part.

The Bellingcat investigation found that since 2010, the St. Petersburg State Institute for Experimental Military Medicine of the Ministry of Defense, possibly with assistance from the Scientific Center Signal, has led Russia's continued efforts to research, develop, and weaponize Novichok — which blocks neurotransmitters and can cause permanent disability and death by heart failure or suffocation.

The institutes were found to be collaborating with the 33rd Central Experimental Institute for Scientific Research of the Ministry of Defense, which the Bellingcat investigation notes was previously involved in work on Russia's chemical weapons program.

They were also reportedly working with the Scientific Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology, which is said to have supervised the purported destruction of Russia's chemical weapon stockpiles.

Furthermore, the investigation found coordination between the two research institutes and a sub unit of Military Unit 29155, an alleged kill operation within Russia's military intelligence, the GRU.

As Business Insider previously reported, Unit 29155 is suspected to have been involved in a number of sensitive and dangerous operations, including Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, assassination attempts across Europe — including the hit on former Russian spy turned double agent Sergei Skripal — and the reported payment of bounties to Taliban militants who attacked US forces in Afghanistan.

"Telecoms data we obtained shows that key researchers from the institute are integrated with Russia's military intelligence, including its black-operations unit (a clandestine sub-unit of GRU's Unit 29155) to a degree that cannot be explained away by purely defensive considerations," Bellingcat reports.

For example, between November 2017 and March 2018, when Skripal and his daughter were poisoned in Salisbury, Sergey Chepur, the head of the St. Petersburg institute, reportedly contacted members of Unit 29155 by phone at least 65 times. Chepur accused Bellingcat of lying when investigators contacted him.

In the wake of the recent Navalny poisoning, European leaders were outraged. Last week, the European Union and the UK imposed sanctions on six senior Russian officials in response. On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators urged the Trump administration to impose new sanctions on Russia.

As Bellingcat notes, the US and European governments have not sanctioned the St. Petersburg State Institute for Experimental Military Medicine of the Ministry of Defense or the Scientific Center Signal.

In the wake of the alleged Russian attack on Navalny, leaders in Europe were outspoken with their criticisms of Russia, but President Donald Trump was silent on the matter.

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