Russia's dark and 'well-documented' ties to chemical weapons

Sarin gas in Syria and Putin’s ‘poisoning’ of political enemies like Alexei Navalny: Russia’s dark and ‘well-documented’ ties to chemical weapons and the Soviet ‘bioweapon’ lab that’s sparked US fears

  • Putin has been accused of multiple high-profile assassination attempts with the Soviet Union-era nerve agent Novichok, which he has denied
  • Two alleged targets, Alexei Navalny and Sergei Skripal, have survived
  • A Salisbury, UK resident died after what British police said was exposure to the same nerve agent that former Russian intelligence agent Skripal was hit with
  • Russia has also helped Syrian government cover its use of chemical weapons 
  • The State Centre for Research on Virology, located in Siberia is in the very heart of the Russian Federation’s bioweapon development program
  • It houses deadly diseases like smallpox, anthrax, Ebola, HIV and Marburg virus  
  • At least 2 workers died there because of exposure to Ebola and Marburg viruses
  • The lab’s director Professor Ilya Drozdov mysteriously went missing in 2017

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine on February 24

The White House raised fresh concerns on Wednesday that Russia could use biological weapons in a dramatic escalation of its invasion of Ukraine.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki condemned Kremlin accusations that the United States was building a bioweapons lab in Ukraine as ‘preposterous’ and pointed out that it was Russian President Vladimir Putin who had a history of using such horrific methods to take out his enemies.

Meanwhile, attention has turned to a Soviet-era research facility in Siberia that could be where Putin stores a terrifying ‘bioweapons arsenal.’ The State Department indicated last year that Russia is running a bioweapons program, though the Kremlin denied the allegation.

‘It’s Russia that has a long and well-documented track record of using chemical weapons, including in attempted assassinations and poisoning of Putin’s political enemies like Alexey Navalny,’ Psaki wrote on Twitter Wednesday. ‘It’s Russia that continues to support the Assad regime in Syria, which has repeatedly used chemical weapons. It’s Russia that has long maintained a biological weapons program in violation of international law.’ 

Putin previously shielded his ally, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, from a United Nations investigation into his use of chemical weapons on civilians in the country’s ongoing civil war.

Human Rights Watch found that at least 85 chemical weapons attacks occurred in Syria between 2013 and 2018, the majority of which they blamed on the Russian-backed Syrian government. 

Both Moscow and Damascus have denied the government’s use of bioweapons even though Assad admitted to stockpiling them in a 2013 Fox interview.

On 2018 an apparent sarin gas attack in the city of Douma was reported to have killed an estimated 40 to 50 people.

Putin has previously given cover to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad when he was accused of using chemical weapons on his own people

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Russia could ‘possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine’ after the Kremlin accused the United States of building a bioweapons lab in Ukraine

Russian officials claimed after an ‘inspection’ of the site that the attack had been staged by Western governments. 

The US State Department had accused Russia of working with Syria ‘to sanitize the locations of the suspected attacks and remove incriminating evidence of chemical weapons use.’

Putin has also been accused of using chemical weapons to carry out targeted attacks — such as those against Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny and former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal.

Navalny, one of the autocrat’s highest-profile critics in recent years, fell ill on a domestic flight to Moscow in August 2020. He was taken to a Russian hospital after the plane made an emergency landing but was flown to Berlin for treatment two days later upon his wife’s insistence.

Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, detected that he was exposed to the Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent. 

Navalny was arrested when he returned to Russia in January 2021 and has been incarcerated ever since, despite international calls for his release.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied having a role in poisoning Navalny. Putin laughed off accusations he was responsible when asked at an event in December 2020, and suggested it was a ‘trick’ pulled to raise the opposition leader’s profile.

Navalny’s poisoning was not the first time Putin was tied to Novichok, however.

On March 4, 2018 former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal were found unconscious on a park bench in the city of Salisbury, England.

A witness told the BBC he saw Yulia on the park bench foaming at the mouth and her eyes ‘were wide open but completely white.’

Skripal was previously convicted of ‘high treason’ by a Russian court in 2006 for allegedly revealing the identities of Europe-based Russian agents to the UK’s MI6 intelligence agency.

British authorities identified the poisonous substance as Novichok and accused Russia of attempted murder. They claim Russian agents flew to England, applied the nerve agent to Skripal’s door handle and then left the country, according to the New York Times. The Kremlin has denied any involvement. 

Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May said at the time, ‘Either this was a direct action by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.’ 

A Salisbury resident died in June of that year after applying perfume her boyfriend brought home a perfume bottle he found in the trash. Her boyfriend fell ill but survived. British law enforcement believes they succumbed to the same poison as the Skripals.

It appears Putin could have a whole stockpile of chemical weapons stored in what looks like a villain’s lair straight out of a James Bond film.

But this is the Soviet-era facility in Siberia where Vladimir Putin’s arsenal of bioweapons may be being housed today. 

The State Centre for Research on Virology and Biotechnology in Novosibirsk Oblast is in possession of devastating diseases like smallpox and anthrax, as well as more recent killer pathogens like Ebola. 

Opened during the height of the Cold War in 1974 as a bioterrorism research centre, it is still one of Russia’s most heavily guarded sites, fenced off with barbed-wire with armed soldiers permanently stationed at its gates.

The 70,000sqft centre is about the same size as a football pitch and is one of 100 research and administrative buildings in the facility, known in Russia as ‘Vector’. 

It is one of just 59 maximum-security biolabs in the world, a status it shares with the Wuhan Institute of Virology — the site at the centre of the origins of the Covid pandemic. 

The State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology, known as Vector (pictured), released a statement saying a gas cylinder exploded on the fifth floor in 2019

Vector has clearance to handle the world’s deadliest pathogens and workers responsible for studying the viruses wear military green, full-body hazmat suits.

The secretive level four facility is nestled in the foothills of southwestern Siberia on the border of Kazakhstan, one of the harshest and most isolated places on earth, where temperatures can plunge to as low as -35C in winter.

Russia claims the lab, one of a dozen involved in the USSR’s manufacturing of bioweapons, shut down research into the weapons in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union.  

Officially, the lab now focuses on developing vaccines for lethal viruses. Last year it launched research into prehistoric viruses found in paleolithic horses recovered from melted permafrost in Siberia.  

But a US State Department report last year claimed Russia ‘maintains an offensive biological weapons program’ despite the country insisting it had ceased such research. 

It comes after the US ambassador to the United Nations claimed that Putin could use bioweapons to overthrow the Ukrainian Government, warning ‘nothing is off the table’ for the Russian dictator.

The lab is one of 59 level four maximum containment labs housing the most deadly viruses in the world, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where some believe the Covid pandemic may have originated

Officially, the lab focuses on developing vaccines for lethal viruses, including smallpox, anthrax, Ebola, HIV and Marburg virus. Pictured: Workers in hazmat suits at the lab

At least two people who worked at the lab have been killed from Marburg and Ebola respectively after accidentally coming into contact with the viruses. Pictured: Workers in hazmat suits at the lab

Vector (pictured in 2016, with medical workers handling the Ebola virus in medical unit number 163) is one of just two to house the deadly smallpox virus, with the other being the Centers for Disease Control and Protection in Atlanta

A top Russian microbiologist formerly in charge of the country’s repository of the planet’s most deadly diseases and viruses – including smallpox, Ebola and Marburg – has been missing for five years after vanishing without trace.

Professor Ilya Drozdov, 68, a scientist with knowledge of Moscow’s bio-warfare secrets, has been put on Interpol’s wanted list, suggesting the authorities fear he has gone abroad, according to reports.

For five years he was head of world famous Russian State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology, Vector, in Koltsovo, Siberia, a secret institute under heavy guard.

This centre produced smallpox on an industrial scale, while also weaponising Marburg, as part of the Soviet biological weapons programme, it has been reported.

In recent years Vector has been involved in efforts to find cures and antidotes to killers such as bubonic plague, anthrax, hepatitis B, HIV and cancer.

There has been no comment from Russian police over where they think Drozdov is now, or, for example, if they fear he has fled to the West or a country that might wish to exploit his expertise.

But the Interior Ministry confirmed he is on their wanted list and faces immediate detention if he can be found.

Russia itself has accused the US of developing bioweapons in Ukrainian labs as part of its justification for the war, although these claims have been denied by global experts.

Former US officials and non-proliferation experts also insist the labs are working to detect and prevent the spread of bioweapons, and have also helped in containing disease outbreaks.

The lab hit the headlines in 2019 when a gas explosion left one worker with second and third degree burns. 

Bosses were forced to deny that the fire had exposed the public to pathogens stored inside. 

Fifteen years earlier, lab worker Antonina Presnyakova died after she accidentally pricked herself with a needle which contained the Ebola virus. 

And its former boss Professor Ilya Drozdov went missing in 2017 after being accused of stealing two million roubles — then worth around £27,000 — from the facility.

Professor Drozdov was put on Interpol’s wanted list but has still not been found five years later, with authorities fearing he escaped abroad. 

The facility — also called the Vector Institute — is believed to be one of the locations where Russia may have continued the bioweaponary scheme, which was named Biopreparat in the Cold War era.

A US state department report last year stated that Russia ‘maintains an offensive biological weapons program and is in violation of its obligation under Articles I and II of the Biological Weapons Convention’.

The document said: ‘The issue of compliance by Russia with the BWC has been of concern for many years.’

The convention, which forced the USSR to officially disband Biopreparat, is an international treaty banning countries from developing and stockpiling biological weapons.

Biopreparat agency — which spearheaded the country’s biological warfare programme — was founded in 1974, the same year as the lab. It employed up to 40,000 workers across five military-focused institutes. 

The Vector facility, which now employs around a third of the number 4,500 staff it had back in the Soviet era, is one of 59 level four security labs dotted around 23 different countries.

The largest facility in the world is the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, where some believe the coronavirus pandemic began. 

There are seven in the UK, the best known of which is the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, run by the Ministry of Defence at its base in Porton Down, Wiltshire — where two labs research the threat from biological weapons.

Another high-security lab, run by the National Institute of Medical Research, is based in Camden, North London, and studies flu viruses capable of causing pandemics. 

Experts are becoming increasingly concerned about the control and management of the dangerous organisms in these labs, with some warning that the safety measures are nowhere near sufficient to prevent a global pandemic caused by escaped viruses.

Scientists at the lab had previously weaponised Marburg virus — which kills 88 per cent of people that it infects

The State Centre for Research on Virology and Biotechnology in Novosibirsk Oblast (pictured) houses Russia’s bioweapon arsenal of smallpox, anthrax and Ebola

Vector is also one of just two labs to house the deadly smallpox virus, with the other being the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) in Atlanta, US

‘Full-scale genocide’ unfolds in Mariupol where mayor says ’15 hours of shelling’ has left ‘hundreds dead’ 

Russia has today stepped up its attacks on Ukraine’s major cities as officials in Mariupol said a ‘full-scale genocide’ was underway as Putin’s men unleashed a 15-hour artillery barrage while Kharkiv also came under heavy bombardment in a dark sign of what could be to come in the capital Kyiv.

Mariupol, located in the south of Ukraine on the Black Sea, has been surrounded by Russian forces and struck by artillery in an apparent attempt to bomb the city into submission as Putin’s men resort to ‘medieval’ tactics. Sergiy Orlov, the deputy mayor, said entire districts had been levelled with such heavy barrages that medics cannot get in to retrieve the dead.

‘We are near to a humanitarian catastrophe,’ he said. ‘Russian forces are several kilometers away on all sides,’ he added. ‘The Ukrainian army is brave and they will continue to defend the city, but Russia does not fight with their army, they just destroy districts… We are in a terrible situation.’

Meanwhile Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, came under heavy barrage in the early hours as Russian troops try to surround and seize it after days of fighting – with a rocket slamming into a university building and police station in the early hours before the city council was also struck, with one of the explosions caught in a dramatic video.

The bombardment gives a dark taste of what is likely to come for other cities such as Kyiv after analysts warned Russia’s military – having suffered heavy losses trying to pull off ambitious precision strikes – was likely to resort to surrounding cities and bombing them into submission to force a bloody victory.

Filippa Lentzos, a senior lecturer in science and international security at King’s College London, said 75 per cent of high-security labs around the world are sited in urban areas — increasing the likelihood of rapid transmission in the event of a virus escaping. 

Vector is also one of just two labs to house the deadly smallpox virus, with the other being the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) in Atlanta, US. They are the only facilities in the world allowed to keep the virus under an international agreement. 

They are both inspected for safety by the World Health Organization (WHO) every two years, with the Vector Institute’s last check-up coming in 2019 before the start of the pandemic. 

The last naturally occurring case of smallpox was in 1977 and by 1980 the World Health Organization had declared it globally eradicated.

Smallpox is estimated to have killed up to 300million people in the 20th century.  

Scientists at the lab had also previously weaponised Marburg virus — which kills 88 per cent of people that it infects.

A researcher who injected himself with the virus and died in 1988 is reportedly buried in a zinc-lined grave at a cemetery in the lab complex.

His death came 16 years before Ms Presnyakova accidentally pricked herself with Ebola and died while working in the lab.  

In 2017, Professor Drozdov disappeared without a trace after a complicated legal wrangle.

He was head of the facility for five years and knew some of Moscow’s biggest biological secrets. 

A court ordered Drozdov to be arrested ‘in absentia’ over alleged fraud, in a mysterious case linked to Vector which was only launched four years after he left the research centre, reported The Siberian Times. 

After leaving the institute in 2010, he returned to the southern Russian city of Saratov, where he had earlier headed another major complex called Russian Scientific Research Anti-Plague Institute ‘Microbe’, providing protection against dangerous deceases like bubonic plague, anthrax, and cholera.

Colleagues at Vector claimed that as director he paid ‘exorbitant’ salaries to executives, while laboratory workers received ‘humiliatingly low wages’. 

And in 2019 the lab made the news again when a gas cylinder explosion threatened to leak some of its deadly viruses. 

Russia claims there is no sustained threat after a gas cylinder exploded on the fifth floor.

Authorities scrambled 13 fire engines and 38 firefighters to tackle the blaze — which the lab claims covered 30 square metres. 

The mayor of Koltsovo claimed that no biologically hazardous materials were released in the explosion.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States has invested an estimated £7.5million at Vector to encourage the site to abandon bioweapon research in favour of vaccine development. 

The lab claims it now only works on vaccine research and is no longer involved in biological warfare. 

In recent years Vector has been involved in efforts to find cures and antidotes to killers such as bubonic plague, anthrax, hepatitis B, HIV and cancer. 

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