Russias secret program to develop nerve agents during Cold War unearthed

Korshunov reveals how to protect yourself from chemical weapons

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Ukraine’s defence ministry has warned Russia is preparing a sickening attack on the Ukrainian soldiers and civilians still holed up in Mariupol Azovstal steel plant. Vladimir Putin’s troops are planning to launch chemical weapons to “smoke out” those resisting Moscow’s orders to surrender, latest Ukrainian intelligence suggests. Russian units will also use aerosols to spread chemical weapons, the defence ministry warned. Numerous unverified reports about Russia using chemical weapons have come out of Ukraine in the past two months, claims which Russia has dismissed as a “smear campaign” against the Kremlin.

Chemical weapons have been banned since 1972 under the Biological Weapons Convention, of which Russia was one of the depositaries.

Russia claimed to have destroyed all the chemical arms it possessed as part of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, yet the Kremlin has been accused of using them in recent years. has unearthed a secret program to develop chemical weapons during the Cold War, under the codename ‘Foliant’.

The plot was detailed by Vil Mirzayanov, a Russian chemist who was assigned to a secret laboratory tasked with developing the Novichok agent programme of nerve agents.

In the early Nineties, Mr Mirzayanov revealed details of the Soviet Union’s chemical weapons programme. He was arrested and imprisoned, before charges were dropped.

He fled to the US in 1995, where he wrote the 2008 book ‘State Secrets: An Insider’s Chronicle of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program’.

The book details the ‘Foliant’ program, which ran from the early Seventies until the early Nineties.

The program chillingly aimed to produce nerve agents that could not be stopped by the chemical protective gear available to NATO soldiers at the time.

It also looked to develop agents that were safer to handle but also undetectable in conventional tests.

One of the primary approaches to doing this involved so-called binary agents — chemical weapons that can be produced immediately before deployment, by combining simple and harmless precursors.

The chemical reaction takes place when the weapon is deployed, as firing the weapon removes the barrier between the precursors and allows them to react with one another.

Novichok, which means ‘newcomer’ in Russian, was among the nerve agents secretly produced during the latter stages of the Cold War.

Novichok is believed to be the deadliest nerve agent ever created and is five times more powerful than the notorious VX agent, which was used to poison North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam in 2017.

Novichok was designed to be made from two relatively harmless agents that become lethal when mixed together, and a small dose can be enough to kill someone within minutes.

It disrupts the mechanisms through which the body’s nerves transfer messages to the muscles, resulting in a collapse of many bodily functions.

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With the heart and diaphragm not functioning properly, respiratory and cardiac arrest can occur.

Those affected by Novichok usually die from heart failure or suffocation as fluid fills their lungs.

Anyone who avoids death can still be left permanently disabled by Novichok as the nerve agent can cause permanent nerve damage.

In March 2018, former KGB agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious in Salisbury, having been poisoned with Novichok.

Dawn Sturgess, a local resident, died after also being exposed to the nerve agent.

British authorities identified two Russian nationals as suspects and alleged that they were active officers in Russian military intelligence. Moscow has always denied responsibility.

A number of countries called on Russia to formally disclose its research on the Novichok program, but the Kremlin has never publicly acknowledged its existence.

The true extent of the program, however, was revealed in 1999 when US officials travelled to Uzbekistan to help dismantle and decontaminate one of the USSR’s largest chemical weapons testing facilities.

The facility had been staffed solely by Russians, who left in 1993, taking most of the documentation with them.

According to one defector, the plant was used to produce and test small Novichok batches, which were designed to evade detection by international inspectors.

Most of the details were later revealed by Mr Mirzayanov, who admitted he left his previous career amid the overwhelming guilt.

Speaking to Vice News in 2018, he said: “Every scientist eventually asks himself why he does what he does. I came to the conclusion that chemical weapons are weapons of mass destruction against defenceless people.

“It started eating away at me all the time, this thought that I’m taking part in a criminal enterprise.”

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