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Russian Chemist Who Developed Nerve Agents Has No Doubt Moscow Is Behind U.K. Attack


We've been hearing a lot about a group of nerve agents known as Novichok, one of which was used in the attempted assassination of a former Russian double agent and his daughter last month. She's now said to be in stable condition, but the former spy is still critically ill. Britain's prime minister quickly blamed Moscow for the poisoning, and the U.S. and other governments expelled more than 150 Russian diplomats. Moscow has responded in kind while also denying that Novichok even exists. NPR's Deborah Amos spoke with a Russian chemist who helped developed the nerve agents.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Nice to meet you.


AMOS: I meet this Russian whistleblower at his home in central New Jersey, where he's lived in exile for more than 20 years. A sign on a high metal gate warns visitors, beware of the dogs.


AMOS: In the 1990s, he headed a Soviet-era institute for technological counterintelligence. He alerted the world to a top-secret Russian program to develop nerve agents more powerful than anything that had come before.

MIRZAYANOV: My whole name - Vil Mirzayanov.

AMOS: Mirzayanov revealed the details to the Baltimore Sun and published the specifics in a Russian newspaper to sound the alarm over Novichok, powerful and toxic chemicals developed for the Russian arsenal more potent than sarin and tabun developed by the Germans or VX developed in Britain.

MIRZAYANOV: Developed, tested and weaponized this new generation of chemical weapons - nerve gas but ten times - at least ten times more potent.

AMOS: At the time, Moscow was helping to negotiate a global treaty banning chemical weapons. Mirzayanov revealed Russia was still making them. He was arrested and jailed for divulging state secrets. After intense pressure from the West, he was released in 1994. Now at 83, he's speaking out again, and he says he's not afraid of Russian retribution.

MIRZAYANOV: I'm living with this danger already 23 years. God saved me. I trust God.

AMOS: He suspected Moscow from the start when he read about the attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter. He's convinced they were victims of a Russian assassination attempt.

MIRZAYANOV: There was already enough fingerprint.

AMOS: Enough fingerprints.

MIRZAYANOV: Yeah, it's no secret.

AMOS: On Friday, British officials said it was overwhelmingly likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally took the decision to use the nerve agent. Mirzayanov agrees. He recognized the effects of the poison immediately. He'd seen it before in a Russian lab accident years earlier - an attack on the central nervous system that first blinds the victim, then blood pressure plummets.

MIRZAYANOV: After that - vomiting. And after that - breathing - it looks like you're forgetting to breathe because its disconnected, the central nervous system. If you're poisoned, it's almost irreversible.

AMOS: Mirzayanov supports sanctions against Moscow as a start. But he says the West must go further to convince President Putin that an audacious attack on a former spy in a small British town is unacceptable.

MIRZAYANOV: Deprive his money. Deprive his money. Arrest his money - freeze. And after that, he'll start to negotiate. Not before - oh, my God, they expelled my diplomats. He knows that in a couple months, one by one, they'll start to come back.

AMOS: Mirzayanov wants these Russian nerve agents to come under international control - too dangerous, he says, for any country to keep a stockpile. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Princeton.


Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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