Anatoly Kuntsevich, one of the former heads of Russia’s chemical weapons program who was said to be in charge of the Soviet Union’s development of nerve agents in the 1970s and 1980s, was reportedly a target of Mossad, Israel’s espionage agency.
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Israel believed Kuntsevich was supplying his chemical weapons know-how to Syria during the 1990s and pressured Russia to cut their relationship. After Russia refused, he died under mysterious circumstances on a flight from Syria to Russia.
According to Yedioth Ahronoth’s Ronen Bergman, Kuntsevich oversaw the development of Novichok, the powerful nerve agent suspected to have been used in the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the U.K. earlier this month.
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Kuntsevich allegedly oversaw the program for decades until former Russian President Boris Yeltsin appointed him as as his liason with the West as Russia vowed to disband its chemical weapons program following the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Kuntsevich, however, reportedly began to establish a relationship with Syria in 1995, in which he would allegedly provide his know-how and some equipment for large sums of money. The Mossad reportedly discovered Kuntsevich’s side dealings toward the end of the 1990s, and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak relayed his concerns to the Kremlin. Russia did not intervene, though it remains unclear if Yeltsin was unable to intervene or he simply did not want to.
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According to Bergman, Israel later sent a Mossad agent, under the guise of an independent researcher to meet senior Kremlin officials after Yeltsin’s failure to intervene. The agent reportedly tried to trick Russian offcials into admitting that they knew Kuntsevich was selling chemical weapons to the Syrians, though he failed to procure a disclosure.
Kuntsevich died in April 2002 on a flight from Aleppo to Moscow under unknown circumstances, though Syria reportedly believes that the Mossad successfully poisoned him. Bergman adds that the CIA believes Kuntsevich brought information on how to develop Novichok during his final visit to Syria, adding that Kuntsevich’s death offset future significant issues for Israel and the West.
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The spy dispute has sent U.K.-Russia relations to Cold War-levels of tension. Vladimir Chizhov, Moscow’s EU ambassador, said Russia has no chemical weapons stockpiles and was not behind the poisoning.
"Russia had nothing to do with it," Chizhov told the BBC on Sunday.
AP contributed to this report.