This year, the talk has been of a poisoned door handle. Back in August 1995, the focus fell on the mouthpiece of a white telephone.
According to court documents, it was from an office phone that banker Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary, Zara Ismailova, received lethal doses of a military-grade poison. Within two days, both would be dead.
The gruesome murder is considered a forerunner to the Skripal affair – the only other occasion that a poison resembling novichok was suspected in foul play.
The banker’s murder was eventually pinned on an acquaintance named Vladimir Khutsishvili. According to prosecutors, only Mr Khutsishvili was in Kivelidi’s office during the hours the poison could have been applied. In their version, the poison, an organophosphate nerve agent, was procured on the black market from a scientist called Leonid Rink.
Professor Rink was a star of Soviet science. Born in Leningrad, he worked at the Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology in the closed town of Shikhany, in the southern Saratov region. From 1985, he was a member of the secret team that developed novichok nerve agents. He continued the research up until the mid-1990s.
By the time of Kivelidi’s murder in 1995, Professor Rink was already well-known to law enforcement. A year earlier, he had been suspected and questioned over the sale of military-grade poison to Chechen gangsters.
When it came to court, Professor Rink was not the most consistent of witnesses. But by his third statement, the most comprehensive, he accepted he had sold a “poison designed for humans” to criminals – after, he says, being threatened with violence. In total, eight or nine ampoules of this military-grade poison left his secret labs. This was easily enough to kill several hundred, as Professor Rink himself accepted in court.
The substance he sold was “known to a small circle of people”, “a government secret” and “similar in toxicity to [nerve agent] VX”, the court documents revealed.
The name of the chemical was not mentioned in the documents, but many have since drawn a straight line between it, novichok and the Skripals. Boris Kuznetsov, who initially acted as a lawyer for Mr Khutsishvili before leaving the country, has even claimed the mass spectrometry and infrared spectroscopy reports included in case documents offered the most physical evidence of the existence of the novichok programme. He said he had passed the reports to British authorities last month.
But mystery still shrouds the affair – and earlier this week, Professor Rink added to the confusion by disowning his earlier court statements.
He had not sold military-grade nerve agents on the black market, he insisted in an interview given to independent Russian publication The Bell. Instead, he had “tricked” the criminals by giving them “rat poison” in a “controlled handover” under the watchful eye of the FSB, Russia’s security services. He claimed to know “nothing” of the substance that killed Kivelidi.
A number of obvious questions arose from Professor Rink’s new assertions. If indeed the substances were sold under the control of the security services, how was it that two people ended up dead? Did that not then mean that the security services somehow knew of, or played a role in the murder? And what does that mean for the poisoning in Salisbury?
The Independent has reached out to Professor Rink for comment but was told via an intermediary that he was not prepared to talk.
“Facts are facts,” Mr Kuznetsov told The Independent. “Kivelidi was killed with a military-grade poison and Rink, in court, said he said he sold that poison. A man has served eight years in prison for murder. How can you now start denying things?”
For Mr Kuznetsov, Professor Rink’s new testimony was an attempt to place distance between Russia and the poison: “If the substance in the Kivelidi spectrums matches the substance found in Salisbury, you can only make one conclusion: the same security agency was involved.”
But there is, in fact, little agreement on what the Kivelidi spectrum actually shows.
Vladimir Uglyov, one of the scientists connected with the novichok programme, has suggested the spectrum matches A-234, one of the secret novichok nerve agents. But other scientists surveyed by The Independent cast doubt on that assertion.
According to Vil Mirzayanov, the scientist who first revealed Russia’s chemical weapons programme to the world, the substance most closely resembles tabun, a nerve agent first developed in Germany.
“There’s no fluoride in those charts, that’s the giveaway,” he said. It was “possible” that the substance represented a newer analogue of the novichok class of nerve agents, he said. “Rink was researching new substances to take over from novichok compounds if those were banned. But the spectrum could also be a fake. We don’t, of course, know if this spectrum is showing the material obtained on the crime scene. This is Russia.”
Dan Kaszeta, a London-based chemical defence consultant, told The Independent that the case was yet to be proven. “The whole episode could easily have been a novichok. Or not. The Kivelidi case is shrouded in vague information of mixed value and credibility.”
What the affair does show, however, was that in the crippling poverty of the Russian 1990s, dangerous military-grade poisons did occasionally go walkabout. And it is not likely that Professor Rink was the only scientist unable to resist criminal forces. Mr Mirzayanov himself told The Independent that he was also approached by criminals looking to obtain chemical weapons.
“It’s the first time in telling anybody this, but yes, in 1994, once, I was offered a million rubles to synthesise a poison,” he said. “It was a very short conversation. I said no. Everyone makes their own choices. When I didn’t have money, I went out and sold jeans on the highway.”
Such revelations undermine British suggestions that the Kremlin was “overwhelmingly likely” the only Russian actor capable of implementing a chemical weapon attack using novichok in Salisbury. With the substance floating about on the black market, any number of criminal and near-state groups could potentially have that capacity.
Three experts surveyed by The Independent agreed novichok-type substances sold in the 1990s could retain lethal potency two decades years later.
But even if poison were successfully smuggled into the UK, there are other barriers to it being used in an attack. Its application would, for example, likely require making a suspension with oil, and the substance would be very volatile. This, at the very least, would suggest expert involvement.
“These suspensions are so dangerous that even the smallest mistake will result in tragedy,” says Mr Mirzayanov. “You’re bound to have a mistake if you have no experience. And it’s here that we’re clearly talking about a state or military level of expertise.”
Concurrently, poor handling would also affect the potency of any nerve agent.
“One of the biggest drawbacks of novichok is that it is hydrolysed immediately,” said Mr Mirzayanov. “In retrospect, only an idiot would choose to use it for a murder in England with its 100 per cent humidity.”
He added: “Most likely, the Skripals were saved by the British weather and its interaction with said door handle.”