NY Times & BBC report on the USA getting Novichok

USSR ≠ Russia
USSR > Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, etc.

U.S. and Uzbeks Agree on Chemical Arms Plant Cleanup

By Judith Miller, The New York Times, May 25, 1999

The United States and Uzbekistan have quietly negotiated and are expected to sign a bilateral agreement today to provide American aid in dismantling and decontaminating one of the former Soviet Union’s largest chemical weapons testing facilities, according to Defense Department and Uzbek officials.

Earlier this year, the Pentagon informed Congress that it intends to spend up to $6 million under its Cooperative Threat Reduction program to demilitarize the so-called Chemical Research Institute, in Nukus, Uzbekistan. Soviet defectors and American officials say the Nukus plant was the major research and testing site for a new class of secret, highly lethal chemical weapons called “Novichok”, which in Russian means “new guy”.

The agreement to help Uzbekistan clean up the plant is part of wide-ranging cooperation between Tashkent and Washington since the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan became independent in 1991. Yesterday, American and Uzbek officials opened a series of meetings in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital.

Uzbek officials said in interviews earlier this year that, only after their country became independent, did they come to understand the legacy of pollution that had resulted from their designated role as the Soviet Union’s major testing ground for chemical and biological weapons. “We were shocked when we first learned the real picture,” said Isan M. Mustafoev, the Deputy Foreign Minister, in an interview in Tashkent last March.

Alarmed by the health and environmental impact of the Soviets’ use of Uzbekistan for the production and large-scale testing of illegal chemical and germ weapons, President Islam A. Karimov renounced weapons of mass destruction. Since then, his Government has worked closely with American defense officials, granting them access to sites whose counterparts in Russia are still off limits.

The Chemical Research Institute, which is in a closed military complex in Nukus in the semi-autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, is a case in point. Uzbek officials said they were still uncertain what kind of chemical agents, or how many, were made and tested here and elsewhere on Uzbek soil.

Russia has refused to disclose the information, Uzbek officials complain, and some international arms inspectors have said there is no proof that the Nukus plant was used to produce chemical weapons, now banned.

After touring the plant last year, inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Hague-based agency that oversees the 1993 treaty banning chemical weapons, concluded that the institute may have tested weapons but was not a production site.

Mr. Mustafoev, the Deputy Foreign Minister, scoffed at the finding, arguing there is plenty of evidence of such work at the lab that the Soviets built in 1986, closed to all but the Russian scientists who worked there, and abandoned only in 1992. American officials agreed, noting that a senior defector from the Soviet chemical weapons program, Vil S. Mirzayanov, who worked for more than 25 years in the Soviet chemical weapons program, has told them and later said publicly that the plant was built to produce batches, for testing, of Novichok binary weapons designed to escape detection by international inspectors.

Col. Islamov Abushair, the commander of the Uzbek military base in Nukus, highlighted what he called evidence of the secret Soviet chemical weapons program as he escorted this reporter recently on a rare tour of the plant, now closed. As the Soviet Union was crumbling, he explained, the more than 300 scientists at the plant packed up their deadly chemicals, their most sensitive equipment, manuals, and their test results and returned to their country.

Shards of brown glass laboratory bottles littered the plant’s floors and the icy air of an early spring rushed through broken windows. In one room stood a large test chamber into which smaller animals were placed for testing.

Another room contained treadmills for dogs and dozens of testing harnesses, to cram dogs’ muzzles into gas masks, leaving their bodies exposed. The device enabled scientists to expose either the dog’s skin, or lungs, to lethal chemical agents, Uzbek and American experts said.

“This is the monstrous rubbish they left us,” said Colonel Islamov, whose battalion of Uzbek soldiers now occupies the apartments in which elite Russian scientists and their families used to live.

Colonel Islamov and other Uzbek officials said their country lacked the money to decontaminate and convert the plant and stop the pollution caused by accidents, poor safety procedures and the disposal and dumping of chemical wastes and discarded weapons. A Pentagon official said yesterday that the United States would help Uzbekistan dismantle and decontaminate the complex “to prohibit the proliferation of equipment from this pilot-scale production facility.”

Information is slowly emerging about hundreds of open-air chemical tests at the Nukus plant and on the neighboring Ustyurt Plateau in the Turgay steppe, an equally inhospitable desert several hundred miles west of the Aral sea, which Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan share.

Uzbek and American bio-warfare experts said that in 1988 thousands of antelope dropped dead on the plateau when the wind unexpectedly shifted during one of the chemical tests. Their carcasses are still buried in a pit on the range, they said.

The Soviet-run animal research institute in Tashkent, the capital, once produced snake and spider venom weapons for the K.G.B.’s assassination program, scientists said.

Abdusattor Abdukarimov, director of the Institute of Genetics and Plant Experimental Biology in Tashkent, now a civilian plant, said that in Soviet times it produced wheat pathogens and other microbes to attack plants.


US dismantles chemical weapons

It is reported tests were carried out in desert near the Aral Sea

By Central Asia Correspondent Louise Hidalgo, BBC News, August 9, 1999

A group of American defence experts have arrived in Uzbekistan to start helping the Uzbeks dismantle and decontaminate one of the former Soviet Union’s largest chemical weapons testing facilities.

US officials say the chemical research institute in western Uzbekistan was a major research site for a new generation of secret, highly lethal chemical weapons, known as Novichok.

Congress has allocated up to $6m for the project, after the US signed an agreement on assistance to help dismantle the institute earlier in the year.

Americans have already visited the desert near the Aral Sea

The research centre is housed in a closed military complex and until the early 1990s was a major research site for the chemical weapons the Soviet Union still produced.

The institute was staffed solely by Russians and it was only when they left in 1993, taking with them much of the equipment and documentation, that what had gone in there slowly began to emerge.

According to a senior defector from the Soviet chemical weapons programme, the Soviets used the plant to produce small batches of a lethal new generation of nerve agents called Novichok, or New Boy in Russian. They were designed to escape detection by international inspectors.

Some of these were then tested on the nearby Ustyurt plateau, a forbidding desert west of the Aral Sea, in contravention of treaties Moscow had signed.

Now independent Uzbekistan is only just beginning to learn the legacy it has been left.

The Uzbeks have since worked closely with the Americans, giving them access to sites that in other parts of the Soviet Union are still off limits.

US military scientists and intelligence experts have already visited the nearby island of Vozrozohdeniye in the Aral Sea, which was the Soviet Union’s main open air biological testing site and where hundreds of tons of the deadly anthrax bacteria are believed to have been buried.

For the moment though, the Americans are concentrating on the chemical research institute and of making it safe. Over the next six days a team of 16 defence experts will be at the plant working out how that can best be done.


EDITORIAL: Vladimir Putin’s Toxic Reach

By The Editorial Board, The New York Times, March 12, 2018

Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain declared an end to a mystery that was really no mystery. It was “highly likely,” Mrs. May said on Monday, that a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned in Salisbury, England, by Russian agents in an “indiscriminate and reckless” attack.

The attack on the former spy, Sergei Skripal, who worked for British intelligence, and his daughter Yulia, in which a police officer who responded was also poisoned, was no simple hit job. Like the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, another British informant, who was poisoned with radioactive polonium 210, the attack on Mr. Skripal was intended to be as horrific, frightening and public as possible. It clearly had the blessing of President Vladimir Putin, who had faced little pushback from Britain in the Litvinenko case.

The blame has been made clearer this time and this attack on a NATO ally needs a powerful response both from that organization and, perhaps more important, by the United States.

Mr. Putin has faced little backlash for actions even bolder than the gruesome intrigues in Britain, like the attacks by Russian forces in Ukraine and Syria. With growing support from autocratic forces [who?] in Europe, he must not be emboldened to think he will be unchecked. While President Trump has allowed Mr. Putin a free hand to meddle in American politics, he cannot ignore yet another attempted murder of a Putin foe on allied soil. The administration needs to enforce sanctions Congress has already passed and press NATO to do more, perhaps banning travel by Putin cronies and enacting other restrictions on business activities.

But while Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said the administration was “standing with our U.K. ally,” she would not say whether it thought Russia was responsible for the attack.

The Russians knew that the British would identify the nerve agent, leaving no doubt who was behind the killing. That makes Mr. Putin’s typically cynical treatment of the killing doubly outrageous. When the British “sort out” the killing, he said nonchalantly, then he will comment on it. At the same time his top propagandist on state television, Dmitry Kiselyov, was feeding the outlandish story that Britain poisoned Mr. Skripal to create a pretext for boycotting the 2018 World Cup tournament in Russia. Why would Russia bother to go after a double agent of no use to either side, Mr. Kiselyov sarcastically wondered?

Not to silence him, presumably, because the Russians themselves had released him to Britain in 2010 in a swap for a network of sleeper agents rounded up in the United States. The likely answer was provided by Mr. Putin himself a few months after Mr. Skripal was traded to the West. Asked during his annual give-and-take with reporters in 2010 how he would treat treason, Mr. Putin, a former K.G.B. agent, replied: “Traitors will kick the bucket, trust me. These people betrayed their friends, their brothers in arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them.”

Mrs. May demanded that Russia immediately provide complete disclosure of the Novichok gas program to the Organization on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Then she said the government was drawing up a full range of retaliatory options.

These could range from expelling some Russian diplomats, as Britain did after Mr. Litvinenko’s poisoning in 2006, to stronger sanctions. The trouble is that Russia probably doesn’t much worry about diplomatic expulsions, and British sanctions would add little to the broad range of Western sanctions already in place over the annexation of Crimea.

Yet if Russia’s message is that no “traitor” is safe anywhere, it should be in the interest of every nation to send an indelible message to Mr. Putin that he cannot deploy his weapons of war anywhere he wants.

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