Russia carried out secret tests on how to smear deadly nerve agents such as Novichok on door handles, Britain claimed today in a bombshell dossier of evidence against Moscow in the Salisbury poisoning case.
The UK’s national security adviser Sir Mark Sedwill also alleged that president Vladimir Putin was “closely involved” in the mid-2000s in Russia’s chemical weapons programme.
Sir Mark told how Russian intelligence officers are believed to have targeted emails from former spy Sergei Skripal’s daughter Yulia since 2013. Novichok is believed to have been smeared on the door handle of ex- double agent Mr Skripal’s home in the Wiltshire city.
The Kremlin denies it has any stockpiles of the deadly nerve agent or that it was involved in the attack on Mr Skripal, 66, and Yulia, 33, last month.
But the release of the previously highly classified information will cast fresh doubts over Russia’s denials.
In a letter to Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, Sir Mark also revealed that intelligence chiefs had identified the laboratory where Novichok is believed to have been developed in the Soviet Union and said that after its collapse Russia had continued producing the toxin. He said the codeword for the chemical weapons programme, which included Novichok, was “FOLIANT”.
In his letter, Sir Mark said: “During the 2000s, Russia commenced a programme to test means of delivering chemical warfare agents and to train personnel from special units in the use of these weapons.
“This programme subsequently included investigation of ways of delivering nerve agents, including by application to door handles. Within the last decade, Russia has produced and stockpiled small quantities of Novichoks under the same programme.”
He added that it was highly likely that the Russian intelligence services consider at least some defectors as “legitimate targets for assassination”. Mr Skripal was a former officer in Russian military intelligence, the GRU, and was convicted of espionage in 2004.
Sir Mark said: “We have information indicating Russian intelligence service interest in the Skripals, dating back at least as far as 2013, when email accounts belonging to Yulia Skripal were targeted by GRU cyber specialists.”
Despite denials from Moscow, British intelligence chiefs believe Russia’s chemical weapons programme continued after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The letter continues: “By 1993, when Russia signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, it is likely that some Novichoks had passed acceptance testing, allowing their use by the Russian military. Russia further developed some Novichoks after ratifying the convention. In the mid-2000s, President Putin was closely involved in the Russian chemical weapons programme.”
Sir Mark argued that it was “highly unlikely” that other former Soviet states sought to develop an offensive chemical weapons programme after independence or that a non-state group could have carried out the Salisbury attack, partly given the “high purity” of the Novichok used.
The Soviet Union is believed to have developed Novichoks in the Eighties as a new class of “fourth generation” nerve agents. “The key institute responsible for this work was a branch of the State Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology,” Sir Mark said.
Novichok is thought to have been developed to prevent detection and to circumvent international chemical weapons controls.
“We therefore continue to judge that only Russia has the technical means, operational experience and motive for the attack on the Skripals and that it is highly likely that the Russian state was responsible. There is no plausible alternative explanation,” added Sir Mark.
Inspectors working for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons yesterday confirmed the nerve agent used in the Salisbury attack was from the Novichok family.
The UK and 30 other nations have expelled 150 Russian diplomats in retaliation.
Ms Skripal has been released from hospital but her father is still being treated. UK relations with Russia were dealt a major blow after Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive Polonium in London in 2006.