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Raid on German Companies Chemical Agents for Russia?

Stand: 30.08.2022 11:30 Uhr

Customs investigators this morning searched a number of companies in northern and southern Germany. They are looking into suspicions that company executives have been exporting highly toxic substances for several years without a permit.

By Catharina Felke, Benedikt Strunz, NDR, und Florian Flade, WDR

Customs officials conducted a search on Tuesday morning at the headquarters of Riol Chemie GmbH, in the Lower Saxony municipality of Lilienthal, northeast of Bremen. The chemical company is at the center of an investigation by public prosecutors, who suspect that executives at the firm exported toxic substances and special laboratory material to Russia in more than 30 instances over the past three and a half years without obtaining the necessary permits.

German public broadcasters NDR and WDR, together with the daily newspaper "Süddeutsche Zeitung", have learned that investigators believe the exports involve important raw materials that can be used for the production of chemical and biological weapons, such as mustard gas. According to documents seen by reporters from NDR, WDR and the "Süddeutsche Zeitung", tiny amounts of those chemicals are thought to have been exported to Khimmed, a Russian wholesaler for chemicals and laboratory supplies in Moscow. According to the journalism network OCCRP, a partner of NDR, WDR and SZ,  special laboratories belonging to the Russian military and the Russian domestic intelligence agency FSB are among Khimmed's customers.

Several of the materials in question are apparently chemicals classified as dual-use goods, a label referring to items that can have both a civilian and military use. In addition, the northern German company is suspected of having delivered protective equipment to Russia on several occasions - equipment that can also be used in the production of biological and chemical weapons and therefore falls under export restrictions. Investigators also apparently suspect that Riol Chemie GmbH exported a chemical that can be used in the production of the nerve agent Novichok. This suspicion is evidently based on invoices found during a past inspection.

Novichok is an extremely potent nerve agent that has been produced since the 1970s by a Russian chemical weapons program that remains secret to this day. Russia denies the existence of the program. Novichok became internationally known in March 2018, when former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned by the substance in the British town of Salisbury, very likely by two agents with the Russian military intelligence agency GRU. Novichok is also thought to have been used in the August 2020 poisoning of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

Following the attack on Navalny, Western intelligence agencies began taking an interest in Riol Chemie GmbH. As part of its response to the Navalny poisoning, the United States imposed sanctions on Russian state functionaries and issued export restrictions for a dozen companies. On the list, which the European Union did not adopt, is the recently searched company Riol Chemie. The Russian chemical wholesaler Khimmed, which investigators believe received supplies from Riol Chemie, also landed on the list.

German security officials have for years chronicled intensified global efforts by Russia to secretly obtain supplies and raw materials that can also be used for military purposes, and which are not easy to access due to Western sanctions. Among those supplies are, for example, rocket propulsion systems, chip technologies and chemical products. Whether Riol Chemie has been part of those efforts must now be investigated.

In mid-July, the Higher Regional Court of Dresden sentenced a German entrepreneur to a jail sentence of three years and three months. The court convicted the man for exporting 1 million euros worth of laboratory equipment to Russia without approval in seven instances from 2017 to 2020. The indictment named a front company controlled by Russian intelligence as the recipient.

Frequently, say security experts, Russia’s military reports a need for certain materials and the country’s intelligence agencies are then tasked with acquiring them. This frequently takes place, they say, by way of complex networks of firms, straw men and front companies, but also through direct contacts and the recruitment of scientists or businesspeople. Because of the exacerbated conflict with Russia and the expanded sanctions regime, say security experts, it is likely that such covert Russian procurement efforts will increase in the future.

Riol Chemie GmbH caught the eye of German customs during a routine check last year, though the company had been the focus of a past investigation due to suspected violations of Germany’s Foreign Trade and Payments Act. Soon after Riol Chemie and additional German companies ended up on the U.S. sanctions list, former company employees founded an additional enterprise based in Konstanz called R.R. Rhein Reserve GmbH. German public prosecutors are investigating suspicions that this company may have been established to conceal additional illegal exports to Russia. Investigators are also probing suspicions that Riol Chemie may have misled customs into believing it was sending export-controlled laboratory equipment to Estonia when the equipment was actually destined for Russia. A Bremen logistics company is thought to have been involved. In telephone conversations intercepted by German domestic intelligence, company employees allegedly discussed ways in which future exports to Russia could be concealed.

Some of the German companies and their owners have personal connections in Russia and with firms in question. An examination of Russian commercial register data reveals that a former director of Riol Chemie GmbH was previously a co-owner of a Khimmed subsidiary, to which questionable substances were to be delivered. The data also shows that a current Riol Chemie GmbH executive once served as director of the same Khimmed subsidiary. German domestic intelligence officials believe that the German companies are controlled from Russia.

In addition to the company premises of Riol Chemie and R.R. Rhein Reserve, several private homes, a tax consultancy and the headquarters of a Bremen-based logistics company were also searched this morning in connection with the investigation.

According to the investigation thus far, customs officials in Hamburg believe that Riol Chemie GmbH delivered relatively small amounts of the chemicals to Russia, in some cases involving just a few grams or even milligrams. The substances in question may also have been exported for legal purposes – as reference quantities for food and water analysis, for example.

But Mirko Himmel, an expert for chemical and biological weapons at the University of Hamburg, pointed out on the NDR political TV magazine "Panorama 3" that even tiny amounts of dangerous substances could play an important role in weapons programs. “Even at a laboratory that produces chemical materials, quality controls are necessary, an analysis that requires reference substances.” Those reference substances, he says, are used to check the quality of one’s own product.

Riol Chemie, R.R. Rhein Reserve and the Russian company Khimmed have all thus far declined to respond to requests for comment.

Über dieses Thema berichtete tagesschau24 am 30. August 2022 um 11:00 Uhr.