The investigative group Bellingcat has uncovered new details about Russia’s development of the Novichok nerve agent, which was used against the former Russian agent Sergei Skripal in England in 2018 and the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny in August.
After analyzing phone and travel records of Russian research scientists and officials, Bellingcat found frequent contacts between the director of a military science research institute in St. Petersburg and the agents accused of poisoning Skripal and his daughter Yulia with Novichok in the English city of Salisbury in March 2018. A British couple, Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, were also exposed to the agent; Sturgess subsequently died.
The new Bellingcat report, published Friday, finds that scientists previously working for the Russian Ministry of Defense “were dispersed into several research entities which continued collaborating among one another in a clandestine, distributed R&D program.”
The Kremlin has consistently denied involvement in both of those high-profile attacks.
The St Petersburg institute – the Experimental Institute for Scientific Research in Military Medicine – was one of three Russian establishments, Bellingcat says, charged with developing new forms of chemical warfare. It took the lead after 2010 “in the continued R&D and weaponization of the Soviet-era Novichok program.”
The others are the Signal Institute in Moscow and the 33rd Central Experimental Institute for Scientific Research near the city of Volsk, according to internal emails obtained by Bellingcat.
Russia has denied it has any programs developing Novichok, which was created at a Soviet research institute in the 1970s. In 2017, it announced it had destroyed the last of its chemical warfare stocks in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. Representatives from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were on hand to witness the event.
Bellingcat, an independent investigative reporting outfit, says one scientist in particular was closely involved with Russian military intelligence – the GRU – in the months before the attempt to kill Skripal. It identifies him as Sergey Chepur, head of the institute in St. Petersburg, which “communicated intensively with members of the assassination team during the planning stage of the Skripal mission,” Bellingcat says.
Phone records obtained by Bellingcat showed repeated contacts between Chepur and the GRU agents who traveled to the United Kingdom in 2018. They belonged to an elite GRU group called Military Unit 29155. Chepur “spoke or texted with the unit’s commander, Andrey Averyanov, at least 65 times” between May 2017 and September 2019, according to phone records obtained by Bellingcat.
The report says Chepur also had contact with two of the three GRU agents who went to Britain: Alexander Mishkin and Denis Sergeev. Those contacts accelerated in the three months before the attack on Skripal. Bellingcat says that a month before the Salisbury operation, “on 2 and 3 February 2018, Chepur was contacted for the first time by Denis Sergeev.” It’s not known what they discussed, but a month later Sergeev was in a hotel room in London as his colleagues traveled to Salisbury.
CNN attempted to reach both the Institute and Chepur without success. Bellingcat says Chepur insisted by phone that he had never spoken to Alexander Mishkin, Denis Sergeev, or Andrey Averyanov, the commander of unit 29155.
On January 18, 2018, Chepur visited GRU headquarters in Moscow, as well as the Signal Scientific Center. Phone records obtained by Bellingcat show that he was in contact with four scientists at Signal in the early weeks of 2018.
He visited the GRU again at the end of January and paid a third visit on February 27, according to phone logs reviewed by Bellingcat, three days before the GRU agents flew from Russia to the UK. Other members of Unit 29155, including Mishkin, were also at GRU’s headquarters that day.
Chepur also visited the 27th Military Scientific Center on February 27, in the company of a senior scientist from Signal.
Bellingcat says its hypothesis is that on that day “final preparations for the upcoming assassination mission in Salisbury were made in Moscow, including for the delivery of the poison and the tools for its applicators, to the GRU black-ops unit.”
The St. Petersburg institute identified by Bellingcat was given a new mandate in 2015: the “organization of scientific research in the interest of Russia’s defense and national security,” according to an internal presentation Bellingcat obtained. A growing proportion of its scientists are military employees.
Among their specialties are neurochemistry and extreme toxicology. An announcement from the institute in 2018 said “leading researchers from the institute were specializing on the effects of organophosphate poisons on the human body” – with the goal of developing an antidote to such poisons. Novichok falls into that broad category.
Chepur received an award from the Defense Ministry in September this year – for his “Outstanding Contribution to Military Medicine.”
Hamish de Bretton Gordon, a British expert on chemical warfare, told CNN that Bellingcat’s findings are “clear evidence that Russia has an extant chemical weapons program. The US and NATO need to ensure their capabilities to counter such weapons are up to the mark.”
“These are really sophisticated – almost boutique – asymmetric weapons which though at the moment are targeted at assassinations could easily be adopted as weapons of mass destruction,” de Bretton Gordon added.
The European Union has sanctioned several senior Russian officials and entities in connection with the attack on Navalny in Tomsk in August, further indicating that Western governments believe the Novichok program is directed by Russian state entities at the highest level. Those operations include the State Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology in Moscow, as well as Alexander Bortnikov, director of the Federal Security Service and Defense Ministry, officials who manage Russia’s military research and weapons.
The chemical weapons nonproliferation organization studied the nerve agent used against Navalny and concluded it was a variant of Novichok not previously recorded. Its technical report confirmed “that the biomarkers of the cholinesterase inhibitor found in Mr. Navalny’s blood and urine samples have similar structural characteristics as the toxic chemicals” used in the attack on Skripal. But it added that the cholinesterase inhibitor found was not among the list of its toxic warfare agents.
Some analysts of nerve agents believe Navalny may have been poisoned by a form of Novichok that can be used in powder form rather than as a gel or liquid. In the case of the Skripals and a Bulgarian arms dealer poisoned with Novichok in 2015, the substance used was a viscous liquid smeared on door handles.
CNN’s Mary Ilyushina contributed reporting.