One of Russia’s most senior diplomats has told Sky News his country has never possessed a nerve agent with the codename “novichok” and has destroyed all its chemical weapons.
Alexander Shulgin is Russia’s ambassador to the Netherlands and also the Russian representative at the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
“There has never been any programme under the group name ‘novichok’ in the Russian Federation,” he said. “Back to 1992, Russia stopped all the activities in the area of military chemistry.
“Last year we completed the destruction of all chemical arsenals and the completion of this programme was duly certified by the OPCW.”
Asked whether his country had destroyed all its chemical weapons in line with the internationally recognised Chemical Weapons Convention, Mr Shulgin said: “Absolutely. No question.”
He said the first time he had heard the word “novichok” used in relation to a chemical agent was when Prime Minister Theresa May mentioned it in Parliament.
“Just the day when Theresa May made the announcement,” he said. “I’ve never heard about this programme, about this novichok agent. Never.”
Referring to the broad accusation by Britain that Russia was behind the chemical attack in Salisbury, Mr Shulgin did not hide his irritation at what he sees as a lack of due process.
“Russia was summoned for our explanation – it was a kind of ultimatum. ‘You Russians you have only 24 hours and you need to respond – actually to confess – to your sins’,” he said.
“First, Russia is not a country to be presented with ultimatums. Secondly, how could we respond without any proof, without any evidence to substantiate the claims; the unjust accusations levelled against Russia?
“It was very bellicose rhetoric: Russia is accused without any proof. Our reaction was to say: let’s drop this rhetoric, let’s drop this practice of ultimatums and let’s be abiding by the international law.”
Mr Shulgin said that Russia did not feel isolated, despite broad Western backing for the UK in its assertion that the Kremlin was behind the Salisbury attack.
He suggested that privately, some Western diplomats shared his scepticism.
“Believe me, there are many delegations even among the western group, western countries, that share our standpoint, our point of view about the necessity for Russians to be provided with some kind of stuff to be able to respond,” he said. “We are unable to respond to specific accusations without given materials.
“I spoke with some delegations and they shared with me their scepticism about this play by the British government; it seems because they are in NATO and EU they are bound to follow the line.”
Speaking from the Russian Embassy in The Hague, Mr Shulgin said the British evidence should be put before the OPCW but claimed that the British rejected the idea.
“So we suggested to our British colleagues to calm down and to use this opportunity in The Hague provided by the Chemical [Weapons] Convention,” he said. “Not immediately but the next day after the expiration of this so-called ultimatum, our British colleagues have even more toughened their stance.
“They blankly rejected our proposals.”
The British have stated they are cooperating with the OPCW in line with their duty as part of the Salisbury investigation.
The OPCW has declined all requests for an interviews but released a statement on Friday saying: “As was stated by the UK authorities, the OPCW offered technical assistance for the UK’s investigation and the OPCW expects some action will be taken soon.”
The statement added that there was “no record of the novichok group of nerve agents having been declared by a state party to the Chemical Weapons Convention”.
The OPCW, which is essentially the global chemical weapons watchdog, announced late last year that Russia had successfully destroyed its chemical weapon stockpiles.
It is still working with other countries, including the United States, to destroy theirs.
Mr Shulgin said that OPCW officials were welcome to inspect suspected Russian chemical weapon sites as part of the investigation.
He said: “Yes, there are specific procedures. You mentioned the idea of inspection. This is called under the [Chemical Weapons] Convention, ‘challenging inspection’.
“So if the British people suspect Russia of having a concealed arsenal, they have the right to ask for the ‘challenging inspection’. So they will be welcome to go to Russia providing that there is sufficient evidence that their suspicions are very well based.”
Mr Shulgin said he expected the UK’s research facility at Porton Down would also be opened for inspection.
“Yes, because this novichok agent is very well known by the specialists working in Porton Down,” he said, laughing.
Asked how he would characterise UK-Russian relations at the moment, he said: “Very bad. Very bad and the prospect is not bright at all. So following the decision by UK government to slap sanctions on the Russian Federation, including expulsion of Russian diplomats, you should not be surprised that Russia will retaliate.”
On Wednesday, Sky News spoke to an exiled Russian chemist who claimed to have helped develop the novichok agent in Russia in the 1970s and 1980s.
Dr Vil Mirzayanov told Sky News that he had worked on the weapons programme which produced the novichok group of agents which he said were “the same as nerve gas but 10 times – at least 10 times – more powerful”.
But Mr Shulgin said: “Lies. He is lying. In 1992 Russia brought an end to all kinds of chemical researches, development, work. No developments, no research after 1992.”
He repeated that Russia had never produced any agents with the codename “novichok”.
“We are interested, no less and even more than the British to shed a light, and the establishment of truth is of major importance,” he said.
“These could turn up interesting results for our good British colleagues.”