A chemist who helped develop the nerve agent that Britain says was used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter was investigated in the late 1990s for selling capsules of the toxin to Chechen mobsters.
Leonid Rink, who worked in a Soviet-era chemical weapons facility near the Russian town of Saratov, admitted to investigators after the killing of a Russian banker in 1995 that he sold capsules of the deadly Novichok toxin to Chechen criminals based in Moscow.
Chechen mobsters with ties to Chechnya’s pro-Moscow leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, have been prosecuted in recent years for a string of high-profile killings of opponents of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, including the 2015 slaying of leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov.
“Yes, I understood these people planned to use the substance against people,” Rink told investigators after the 1995 poisoning of Russian banker Ivan Kivelidi, according to classified testimony published by Novaya Gazeta, an investigative newspaper.
Rink is credited with being one of the Soviet-era creators of the deadly military-grade nerve agent, and he has appeared on Russian state television commenting on the Skripal poisoning. In one interview he said Novichok was “the basis for my doctoral dissertation.” He has accused the British themselves of having poisoned Skripal, who was a Russian military intelligence officer recruited as a double agent by Britain’s MI6.
The British government blames the Kremlin for the poisoning of Skripal. But when British Prime Minister Theresa May formally leveled the accusation in a statement in the House of Commons on March 12, she offered a way out for the Kremlin, raising the possibility that Putin’s government might have “lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”
May gave Russia 24 hours to explain, but the Kremlin so far has refused to offer one. It has maintained its innocence and denies any involvement in the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter in the sleepy cathedral city of Salisbury. Kremlin officials have demanded Britain hand over a sample of the nerve agent used and has accused British ministers of insulting accusations.
The Russian Foreign ministry said it “regrets" the EU28 statement issued Saturday blaming Russia for the Salisbury attack. It said the EU was "heading toward an anti-Russia campaign, instigated by London and Washington.”
Another Russian scientist who worked on the Novichok program, Vil Mirzayanov, who fled to the U.S. two decades ago, has raised doubts about the possibility of Russian authorities losing control of any stockpiles of Novichok. He has told reporters that Soviet and later Russian authorities maintained tight control of the toxin, questioning whether any Novichok could have fallen into the hands of anyone the Kremlin did not want to have it.
But the 1995 slaying of Russian banking magnate Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary, who both died from organ failure after being contaminated, suggests otherwise.
In a secret trial, Kivelidi’s business partner was convicted of his killing. Prosecutors said he had obtained the poison via intermediaries, from Rink, then an employee at the state chemical research institute known as GosNIIOKhT. Rink admitted he had supplemented his state salary by selling capsules of the nerve agent — amounting to hundreds of lethal doses to various criminals, including Chechen mobsters — but he maintained he had done so a month after Kivelidi’s poisoning.
He got off lightly and wasn’t seriously punished, though, serving just a year in jail for “misuse of state property.”
Rink’s admission to investigators of having smuggled Novichok out of the Saratov facility adds a fresh quirk to the unfolding Skripal story. But some analysts warn that the re-surfacing of the case now serves the Kremlin, worrying that it is a diversion and designed to muddy the waters.
“Isn’t the point that Novichok needs to be precisely and expertly mixed an hour before its administration to be effective,” says Edward Lucas, author of the book, The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West. “I think this is a diversion,” he told VOA.
Vil Mirzayanov suggested in an interview with VOA’s Russian Service that anyone could cook up Novichok because he posted the formula online.
Chechen assassins have been involved in a string of high-profile slayings of political and media critics of Putin in recent years, including leading opposition politician Nemtsov, who was shot dead in February 2015 near the Kremlin. But in all the cases prosecutors have failed to pursue the chain of command for the actions of the assassins, complain rights campaigners.
Five ethnic Chechens were found guilty of Nemtsov’s slaying and the gunman Zaur Dadayev, was a former member of an elite military under the command of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow president Ramzan Kadyrov. Chechens also were convicted for the 2006 shooting of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a thorn in the side of the Kremlin.
The investigation of the sale of toxins lasted several years, and Rink was questioned many times between 1999 to 2006, according to court documents. He detailed how he sold toxins to people connected with crime. He worked as head of the laboratory in a branch of the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology (GOSNIIOHT) in the closed city of Shihany, near Saratov.
“Colleagues consider him to be a professional of the highest qualification in the field of highly toxic compounds, noting that ‘specialists of this level can be counted on the fingers,’” according to Novaya Gazeta. In 1994 chemical weapons scientists warned the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) state security officials that Novichok was “synthesized and sold in an unauthorized manner.”
Rink told FSB interrogators: “When I handed over [an ampule], I naturally instructed a person about the safety measures when handling this substance. I said that the substance acts when applied to the skin of a person and when the substance gets into the body with food. I said that the signs of death would be like a heart disease.”
The Novichok chemist wasn’t alone among Russian scientists and workers in state facilities to sell dangerous substances and military hardware. In the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union scientists and government workers were left unpaid for weeks and months at a time.
Stockpiles were not well secured — fissile material was sold on the black market, there were were thefts of radioactive material, propelled by the deteriorating economic and security conditions in military facilities.