Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Moscow — A Russian scientist told state media on Tuesday that he worked on an official programme to produce the nerve agent Britain says was used against ex-spy Sergei Skripal, contradicting Moscow’s claims it never developed Novichok.

Leonid Rink, who told RIA Novosti he worked on a state-backed programme up to the early 1990s, said the former double agent and his daughter would be dead had Moscow been involved in his poisoning.

"They are still alive. That means that either it was not the Novichok system at all, or it was badly concocted, carelessly applied," he said in the interview.

"Or straight after the application, the English used an antidote, in which case they would have had to have known exactly what the poison was," he said.

Rink said he worked at a state laboratory in the closed town of Shikhan for 27 years, where the development of Novichok formed the basis of his doctoral dissertation.

"A large group of specialists in Shikhan and Moscow worked on Novichok," he said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov last week said Moscow had never had any programmes to develop the chemical weapon.

"I want to state with all possible certainty that the Soviet Union or Russia had no programmes to develop a toxic agent called Novichok," he said.

The foreign ministry told AFP on Tuesday this remained its position.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova earlier said Britain had chosen the name "Novichok" because it sounded Russian and would implicate Moscow in the attempted killing.

The name "immediately creates associations with Russia, something Russian, so as to immediately focus attention on our country", Zakharova said, adding that Britain, Slovakia, the Czech Republic or Sweden could have been the source of the nerve agent.

The countries have denied the claims and on Monday Sweden said it had summoned Russia’s ambassador for talks over the allegations.

Before the Russian foreign ministry distanced itself from the chemical weapon, Senator Igor Morozov said Moscow had once developed Novichok but had ceased doing so and had destroyed its stockpiles.

London and its allies say Russia was behind the attempted assassination in the English city of Salisbury, but Moscow has angrily denied any involvement. President Vladimir Putin has called the claims "drivel, rubbish, nonsense", while his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has said London must produce proof of a Russian connection or apologise.

Russian politicians have suggested the poisoning was part of a Western plot to whip up anti-Russian sentiment ahead of the presidential election at the weekend or the World Cup.

Skripal, a former Russian officer who sold secrets to Britain and moved there in a 2010 spy swap, remains in critical condition along with his daughter after they were found unconscious on a park bench.

Investigators from the international Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arrived in Britain on Monday to collect samples of the nerve agent used.

Britain last week announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, prompting a tit-for-tat response from Moscow. Britain also announced a boycott by members of the royal family and ministers of this summer’s World Cup in Russia.