Russian president Vladimir Putin issued an order yesterday to end the special research status of Shikhany, the secretive town believed by British intelligence to have produced Novichok, a lethal nerve agent. UK authorities say the poison was recently used by Kremlin agents to try to kill former Russian spy Sergei Skripal.
Shikhany is one of many ZATOs, closed Russian towns dedicated by the government to conducting highly secret scientific research. Putin’s decree orders that the town, which is near Saratov in southwest Russia, be “abolished” by Jan. 1 2019.
A local spokeswoman told the AFP that the order’s effect on a local factory was not clear: “President Putin on Tuesday signed a presidential decree which removes the status of ‘closed territorial administrative entity’ for our town,” said Yulia Ershova. “Our factory, a branch of the State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology, is still functioning but we do not know what will happen once Shikany is opened,” she told AFP.
The order gives no reason for the town’s change of status, and does not mention Novichok. Russia’s federal government will pay the Saratov region 63.8 million rubles (around $1m) to close down the town.
The Times of London reported in April (paywall) that a lab in the secretive town created the nerve agent used to attack Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the sleepy British cathedral town of Salisbury. The poisoning of Skripal, who had acted as a double-agent for Britain, caused a diplomatic outcry, with 28 countries around the world expelling more than 150 Russian diplomats for what was interpreted as a chemical attack by Russia.
Russia has denied any involvement in the Skripal poisoning, or in the development of Novichok. The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A British woman died from exposure to the nerve agent earlier this month.
Correction July 18, 2018, 3:20pm EST: This article was corrected to reflect that Putin’s order was issued on July 17, not 18. An earlier version of this article and headline stated that Putin’s order would “close” the town of Shikhany; in fact, the order will end its ZATO status.