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  Wastes of War
Soviets Reportedly Built
Weapon Despite Pact

By David Hoffman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 16, 1998; Page A36

While Russia is seeking worldwide financial aid to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile, critics say it still has not fully disclosed what the Soviet Union produced during the Cold War. In particular, some experts believe the Soviet military invented a new class of extremely potent binary nerve agents. The code name for the new weapons was "novichok," which in Russian means the "new guy."

Russia has treated the question as a state secret, but several sources confirmed the basic facts in recent interviews.

Binary weapons are made of two ingredients that become lethal only when combined at the last minute before detonation. In unitary chemical weapons, such as VX, sarin and soman, the chemicals are combined in the manufacturing process, so the weapon is dangerous from the outset.

According to Vil S. Mirzayanov, a 26-year veteran of the Soviet chemical weapons program who now lives in the United States, Moscow pushed hard to build a new class of highly effective, secret binary weapons.

When the United States and the Soviet Union signed a bilateral agreement in 1990 to reduce their chemical weapons stockpiles, Mirzayanov said, Moscow in fact was coming up with a binary weapon of its own. He said the Soviet Union often had denounced U.S. research on binary weapons but actually was carrying out its own research, for which top scientists received the Lenin Prize.

In October 1991 and January 1992, Mirzayanov and Lev Fedorov, an activist who is president of the Union of Chemical Safety, went public with disclosures that the new weapon was under development. Mirzayanov said Russia's long-hidden chemical weapons complex first had developed several new unitary nerve agents. One of the most promising was known as A-232.

Vladimir Uglev, a scientist in the Soviet laboratories then, said in an interview that he helped invent A-232, which had an advantage: It could be used in cold temperatures and would not freeze on the battlefield.

From there, he said, Soviet scientists created a binary weapon based on A-232. Mirzayanov has written that the binary weapon was potent – five to seven times more effective than VX gas. Moreover, he said, the weapon was made from ingredients that can be made at industrial fertilizer plants. The ingredients, in large part, would not fall under the Chemical Weapons Convention and thus not have to be destroyed. "Inspectors would have a difficult time uncovering this covert Soviet chemical weapons program," he said.

Mirzayanov said in an interview that the new binary agents eventually were destroyed by exploding them at a testing site near Saratov. "They destroyed this group in order not to give up the secrecy of this weapon," he said. "But I am not sure they destroyed them entirely."

Mirzayanov's public statements aroused the Russian security services. He was arrested in 1992 and 1994 and accused of revealing state secrets. Uglev also was accused and was locked out of his laboratory. Uglev threatened that unless charges against him and Mirzayanov were dropped, he would release secret formulas of the chemical weapons. Uglev acknowledged in the interview that his threat was a feint – he wasn't sure he actually had the formula. Nonetheless, it may have worked: The charges were dropped.

Russia has never acknowledged that it developed the "novichok," or that it destroyed it. Asked about Mirzayanov's claims, Gen. Stanislav Petrov, commander of Russia's radiation, chemical and biological defense troops, said, "These ghosts, we don't even want to chase them."

He added, "They are ghosts, they are rumors and talk, not confirmed by anything."

Asked again whether the weapon was developed and destroyed, he replied, "No, it did not exist."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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