The development of chemical weapons in Russia is officially banned. In 1997, Russia ratified the international Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction. In 2001, the State Commission on Chemical Disarmament was created, headed by Sergei Kiriyenko. It lasted until 2017, when Russia announced the final elimination of its chemical weapons. Thus, officially, Russia does not and cannot possess chemical warfare agents: the old stocks have been destroyed, and production is prohibited.
In Soviet times, the closed city of Shikhany in the Saratov Oblast was the main center for the development of chemical weapons. In fact, these are two cities — Shikhany-1 and Shikhany-2; their other names are Volsk-17 and Volsk-18. In 1960, a branch of the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology (GosNIIOKhT) was opened in Shikhany. It was in Shikhany that a group led by Pyotr Kirpichev in the 1970s–1980s developed organophosphorus compounds of nerve-paralytic action, which belong to the class of substances that later received the name Novichok.
In the nineties, one of the former employees of GosNIIOKhT, Vil Mirzayanov, spoke about the secret program for creating Novichok. In 2008, 13 years after emigrating to the United States, he published a book on Russia's chemical weapons program. Vladimir Uglev, another scientist from Shikhany and one of the developers of Novichok, said that four such substances (three of them under the “Foliant” program), as well as several hundred of their modifications, were created at the Volsk branch of GosNIIOKhT. The fact that Novichok was developed in Shikhany is confirmed by another scientist involved in its development, Leonid Rink. The substances were tested by the 33rd Central Research and Testing Institute of the Ministry of Defense (33rd TsNII), also located in Shikhany.
After Russia joined the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Shikhany gradually lost its importance. However, the scientists who were involved in the projects there did not go anywhere — they just moved to other organizations. In October 2020, The Insider and Bellingcat released a joint investigation into how Russia continues to clandestinely develop chemical weapons.
Talks about the development of Novichok in Russia began after the assassination attempt on former intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, who lives in Great Britain, and his daughter Yulia. It was then that the word Novichok became known to the general public and began to appear in various contexts, from media publications to official government statements. Bellingcat has established that the operation involved GRU officers Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, who used cover names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. According to Bellingcat and The Insider, officers of the GRU (Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, better known by its former name — Main Intelligence Directorate) were also involved in the poisoning of the arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, as well as his son and colleague, which happened in Bulgaria in 2015.
Billing data showed that shortly before the assassination attempts, Sergei Chepur, the head of the St. Petersburg State Research and Testing Institute (GNII) of military medicine, a toxicologist specializing in the identification of highly toxic anticholinesterase poisons, had close contact with the GRU officers. This GNII actively studies cholinesterase inhibitors and conducts preclinical trials of an antidote to such toxic substances.
In addition to the GRU employees, Sergei Chepur's frequent contacts were employees of Signal Scientific Center, created in 2010. It is headed by Artur Zhirov, who in the past was the head of the 27th Scientific Center of the Ministry of Defense, which for some time was part of the above-mentioned 33rd Central Research Institute. It was in Signal that about eight scientists from Shikhany moved to work. A number of employees of the 27th Scientific Center of the Ministry of Defense also got a job there. According to the investigation carried out by Radio Liberty, chemists who studied cholinesterase inhibitors at Russian military institutes and specialists in nanoencapsulation — the technology of packing nanoparticles of a substance into a shell of another substance — went to work at the newly formed scientific center. This technology can probably be used, among other things, for poisoning: nanoencapsulation of Novichok is theoretically capable of making it more effective and slowing down its action.
Formally, Signal deals with export control. In addition, its employees are the authors of a series of patents for dietary supplements and dry mixes for sports drinks. This explains why “Petrov” and “Boshirov” called themselves sellers of sports nutrition during the interview with Margarita Simonyan. However, practically none of these additives can be found on sale, and their manufacturer, the Scientific Research Institute of Hygiene, Occupational Pathology and Human Ecology located in the Leningrad Oblast, is directly related to chemical weapons.
According to the investigation, Signal has a dual purpose: this research center provides support for all operations of the Russian special services associated with Novichok. At first, it was proved that they provide Novichok for the needs of the GRU, with whom they contact through the State Research Institute of Military Medicine and Sergei Chepur. And after The Insider and Bellingcat investigated the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, it turned out that in the case of operations within Russia, the FSB was the “customer” of Signal's services.
Bellingcat found out that the attempt on Navalny's life was carried out by a group of operatives working at the Forensic Science Institute of the Center for Special Techniques of the FSB (see the “Investigation” section for details). This institute (aka NII-2 FSB, aka military unit 34435) was created in 1977 as a high-tech investigative unit of the KGB. Its main profile is conducting all types of examinations for the needs of the FSB. It was his employees who checked the videos of the activist Yegor Zhukov for extremism and found traces of drugs on the hair of journalist Ivan Golunov (it turned out later that the Golunov case was fabricated). The FSB Criminalistics Institute has played a key role in the investigation of virtually all high-profile incidents in the post-Soviet period, from the Kursk submarine disaster to the Beslan hostage crisis.
However, as in the case of Signal, the FSB Criminalistics Institute has a dual purpose. Russian intelligence officers who fled to the West said that the institute was running a secret laboratory that produced poisons during the Soviet era; one of its first victims was the Bulgarian émigré writer Georgy Markov. There is evidence that polonium that was used to kill Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 was also taken from NII-2.
Bellingcat investigators were able to determine from billing data that the institute still operates a chemical weapons poisoning laboratory. Its main base is located in Moscow, at the intersection of Akademika Vargi Street with Teplostansky Proezd, and the secondary base is in Podlipki near Moscow, not far from Korolev.
The FSB Criminalistics Institute is headed by Colonel-General Kirill Vasiliev, a chemical engineer who also participates in research for the Signal Scientific Center. He is subordinate to Vladimir Bogdanov, director of the Center for Special Equipment of the FSB. Five employees of the institute took part in the attempted murder of Navalny: Stanislav Makshakov, Alexei Alexandrov, Oleg Tayakin, Ivan Osipov, Konstantin Kudryavtsev (read more about them in the “Investigation” section). Kudryavtsev and Makshakov previously worked in Shikhany. Before and immediately after the assassination attempt on Navalny, employees of the FSB Criminalistics Institute called up many times with employees of the Signal Scientific Center.
At first, the authors of the investigation assumed that the operation to poison Navalny was carried out by the FSB Criminalistics Institute itself. However, it turned out that in this case it was conducting a joint operation with another unit of the FSB — the Department for Defense of Constitutional Order (UZKS), which is part of the Service for Defense of Constitutional Order and Fight against Terrorism, also known as the Second Service.
The Second Service is the ideological successor to the Fifth Directorate of the KGB of the USSR, which was engaged in the fight against dissent and “ideological sabotage.” In 1989, it was transformed into Directorate “Z” (Directorate for the Protection of the Soviet Constitutional System), and in 1991 it was disbanded. The “rebirth” of the Fifth Directorate is considered to be the Constitutional Security Directorate, formed in July 1998; in the same month, Vladimir Putin took over as director of the FSB. In 1999, this office was merged with the Department of Counter Terrorism (Second Department). The resulting structure, the Department for Defense of Constitutional Order and Fight against Terrorism, has been called a service since 2004.
The UZKS confronts not only terrorists — under the guise of protecting the constitutional order, it fights against the political enemies of Vladimir Putin. The report of the “Dossier” center called “Lubyanka Federation” describes the functions of this department as follows:
The UZKS is mainly engaged in matters related to politics in one way or another, it oversees the left, right, fan and other active communities, which, according to the FSB, are potentially threatening the authorities. For example, UZKS operatives carried out operational support in the case of the nationalist group “BORN” and the case of the murder of Boris Nemtsov. Efforts of the UZKS often turn out to be aimed at counteracting civil society in Russia and slowing down its development. The UZKS “looks after” the leaders of public opinion, key parties and movements, purposefully and consistently tries to identify and neutralize prominent protest figures, form a “zone of exclusion” around them, deprive the opposition movement of financial and media support.
And, like the other organizations mentioned above, the UZKS has a secret area of work — there is de-facto a department for political assassinations within it.
If they decide to resort to poison in order to eliminate an unwanted person, the UZKS turns to the FSB Criminalistics Institute for assistance, and they conduct a joint operation. According to investigators, the leading role belongs to the UZKS, whose employees are in direct contact with the Kremlin. The Criminalistics Institute, in turn, provides technical specialists — doctors, chemists, and so on. On each trip during which it is planned to poison the selected victim, a representative of the UZKS is sent along with the operatives from the Criminalistics Institute. It was thanks to the data on these trips that the investigators managed to discover this unit and subsequently identify a group of people who took part in a whole series of attempts, both successful and unsuccessful, on politicians, journalists and other public figures.
Of the FSB officers involved in the operation to poison Navalny, the UZKS includes Alexei Krivoshchekov, Vladimir Panyaev and Mikhail Shvets, as well as their leader Valery Sukharev (for more details, see the “Investigation” section).
The body of 26-year-old Timur Kuashev was found on August 1, 2014 in the village of Khasanya near Nalchik. The official cause of death is acute coronary insufficiency. According to investigators, the future poisoners of Navalny, Konstantin Kudryavtsev and Ivan Osipov, took part in the operation to kill him; other participants were Denis Machikin and Roman Matyushin. Kuashev's father, suggesting the poisoning of his son, insisted on an examination of his blood. The samples were sent to the FSB Criminalistics Institute, where members of the poisoning team work. Naturally, nothing suspicious was found there. The expert examination was signed by Vasily Kalashnikov — he was mentioned by Konstantin Kudryavtsev in his conversation with Navalny (see the “Investigation” section). Timur Kuashev was one of the few independent journalists in the region and received constant threats. His murder is associated with the fact that Kuashev closely covered the court proceeedings on the 2005 riot in Nalchik, which were supervised by the FSB.
Ruslan Magomedragimov, an activist of the regional public movement “Unity”, was found dead on March 24, 2015 in Kaspiysk (a suburb of Makhachkala). According to the official version, he died of suffocation; relatives said that they saw two points on his neck, similar to the mark from a syringe injection. A syringe mark was also found under Kuashev's armpit. Together with the flight data, this makes it highly probable that a team from the FSB Criminalistics Institute, namely Osipov and Kudryavtsev, was involved in the poisoning.
There were two attempts to assassinate Vladimir Kara-Murza — in 2015 and 2017, both times iby poisoning. Tthe first time, the official diagnosis was “acute renal failure with underlying intoxication.” What happened to Kara-Murza is reminiscent of what happened to Navalny: the politician's relatives demanded that he be sent abroad for treatment, but the chief physician of the First Gradsky Hospital, Alexei Svet, said that he was not transportable. According to the doctors, the blood tests of Kara-Murza showed no signs of poison. At the same time, an examination carried out in France found a significant excess of the norm for the content of heavy metals in his body. Kara-Murza spent several days in a coma; after six weeks in a Russian hospital, his condition stabilized and he was transferred to the United States for rehabilitation. He recovered more or less fully only by the beginning of 2017.
In February 2017, Kara-Murza was hospitalized with the same symptoms as the first time. This time he was immediately diagnosed with the “toxic effect of an unknown substance.” The politician spent several days in a drug-induced coma and, after being discharged from a Moscow hospital, went abroad for treatment. Samples of his blood were transferred to the United States, where examination showed that Kara-Murza had been poisoned with an unknown biotoxin.
An investigation revealed that prior to both poisonings, FSB officers had repeatedly followed the politician on his travels across Russia. His constant companion was Alexander Samofal from the Second Service of the FSB. Three times Kara-Murza was accompanied by Konstantin Kudryavtsev, one of Navalny's future poisoners. The highest-ranking participant of the operation is Roman Mezentsev, who previously traveled on jointly purchased tickets with Kremlin officials, including former Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov. Billing data showed that Mezentsev had repeatedly talked with Stanislav Makshakov from the FSB Criminalistics Institute (for more details, see the “Investigation” section). Conversations between Mezentsev and Makshakov also took place several days before Navalny was poisoned.
The attempts to assassinate Vladimir Kara-Murza are primarily associated with the fact that, along with Boris Nemtsov, he actively promoted the “Magnitsky law” adopted by the US Congress in December 2012. In both cases of poisoning, Kara-Murza appealed to the Investigative Committee, but received no response. No criminal cases were opened.
Nikita Isaev, a Kremlin-loyal politician who formally identified himself as an oppositionist, died on November 16, 2019 on the Tambov-Moscow train. At night, Isaev felt bad, he told his companion that he was poisoned, but he was taken to the doctors only an hour later, and it was not possible to save him. The official cause of death was a heart attack. According to Bellingcat, FSB officers began following Isaev in December 2018. In total, when analyzing their and Isayev's movements, seven matches were found in the city and date of travel, not counting the last trip to Tambov. The surveillance team included two people involved in the poisoning of Navalny — Alexandrov and Osipov. Other members of the team were Viktor Kravchenko, Mikhail Tikhonov and the already mentioned Alexander Samofal. With the use of the telephone metadata, it was possible to establish that one of the five was in Tambov shortly before Isaev's death. The reasons for his murder remain open to question; there is a version that the poisoning of Isaev was a kind of “rehearsal” for the operation to murder Navalny.
On April 16, 2019, Dmitry Bykov became ill at the Yekaterinburg airport. He lost consciousness on board the Yekaterinburg-Ufa plane and was hospitalized in Ufa. On April 18 he was taken to Moscow, and on April 22 he regained consciousness. It’s important to note that the council of doctors in Ufa tried to impede its transportation. Doctors did not come to an unambiguous diagnosis, but Bykov unequivocally called the poisoning the cause of his condition, and later said that Navalny's symptoms were similar to his.
Bellingcat found out that a group of FSB assassins had begun monitoring Bykov at least a year before the poisoning. His constant companion was Vladimir Panyaev, an employee of the UZKS. Immediately before the poisoning, he was joined by Ivan Osipov from the FSB Criminalistics Institute. Valery Sukharev also participated in the surveillance under the name of Nikolai Gorokhov. All of them later took part in the operation to poison Navalny.
Investigators suggest that the poison was applied to Bykov's clothes at the Domina Hotel in Novosibirsk, where he stayed several days before the poisoning. He probably only put these clothes on in Yekaterinburg, in the morning before the trip to Ufa.
On April 28, 2015 in Sofia, Bulgaria, Emelyan Gebrev, the owner of the arms company Emco, was hospitalized with symptoms of severe poisoning. On the same day, his son and company directors, who were in other parts of the city, were hospitalized with similar symptoms. A chemical weapons laboratory at the University of Helsinki found traces of two organophosphates in Gebrev's body — evidence of an attempt to kill the businessman with a nerve agent from the Novichok family.
In the morning of April 28, all three victims visited the office located in the building of the Orbita Hotel in Sofia. Already in 2019, GRU officer Denis Sergeev (operational name — Sergei Fedotov), who took part in the assassination attempt on the Skripals in 2018 (see below), was identified on the footage from the hotel cameras. After the poisoning, Gebrev spent a month in a coma, then his condition began to improve, but in May he was hospitalized again — during the same period, Sergeev returned to Bulgaria for three days.
The Insider, Bellingcat and Der Spiegel managed to find out that this is not the only member of the operation — according to their information, at least seven members of the GRU took part in the assassination attempt on Gebrev. In February 2020, the Bulgarian prosecutor's office put three of them on the international wanted list: Sergei Pavlov (real name — Sergei Lyutenko), Sergei Fedotov and Georgy Gorshkov. Gebrev himself linked the assassination attempt with the fact that his company supplied weapons to Ukraine, and with the possible claims of Russia on an arms factory controlled by Emco.
On March 4, 2018, in the UK city of Salisbury, an attempt was made on the life of a former GRU officer Sergei Skripal, who was a double agent and worked for the British special services. His daughter Yulia, who came to visit her father, also suffered. Police officer Nick Bailey, who examined the house, was also hospitalized and spent two and a half weeks in the hospital. Yulia regained consciousness on March 27, and Sergei on April 8.
Experts from the British laboratory Porton Down have established that the cause of the poisoning was a substance from the Novichok family. On March 12, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the Skripals had been poisoned with a nerve agent developed in Russia. At the request of the UK, the OPCW conducted an independent review and confirmed the findings of the Porton Down scientists.
On June 30, in the city of Amesbury, 11 kilometers from Salisbury, two British citizens — Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess — were taken to hospital with symptoms of poisoning. On July 8, Sturgess died in hospital. British police stated that Rowley and Sturgess were exposed to the same nerve agent as the Skripals. A bottle with the remains of Novichok was found in their house — it was probably in this bottle that the GRU officers brought the substance to Britain. Rowley said he found the bottle on the street in Salisbury.
On September 5, 2018, the British prosecutor's office charged two Russian citizens, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, who were caught on cameras in Salisbury, with the attempted murder of the Skripals. According to a series of joint investigations by Bellingcat and The Insider, the passports in the names of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov belong to current GRU officers Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga. In February 2019, another participant in the operation was identified — Major General of the GRU Denis Sergeev, who worked under the fictitious name of Sergei Fedotov. In September 2021, the British police brought charges against him.