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What the Government Isn’t Telling You About Novichok Nerve Agents

So far, the only positive evidence put forward by Theresa May in her attempt to prove that Russia were behind the Salisbury attack on March 4th is the supposed use of a ‘Novichok’ nerve agent: 

“Mr Speaker, on Monday I set out that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Novichok: a military grade nerve agent developed by Russia.

Based on this capability, combined with their record of conducting state sponsored assassinations  including against former intelligence officers whom they regard as legitimate targets  the UK government concluded it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for this reckless and despicable act.

And there were only two plausible explanations. Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country. Or conceivably, the Russian government could have lost control of a military-grade nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”

Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition, has agreed with the structure of May’s argument, though he has called for more specific evidence to be brought forth.

What are Novichoks?

To assess the veracity of these claims, some background knowledge on Novichoks is required. The word literally means ‘newcomers’ or ‘new boy’. They were developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970’s in an effort to develop deadly nerve agents from ordinary, easily accessible, and relatively un-monitored chemical precursors.

The whistle-blower Russian chemist Vil Mizayanov published reports in the Russian press describing its existence and nature in the early 1990’s. He was charged as a traitor by Russia, though his trial later collapsed. He soon relocated to the USA, where he released a 1995 report describing the state of Russian chemical weapons, including a discussion on Novichoks. In 2008, he published a book on his story. This book, State Secrets, published the actual chemical formulae of the Novichok nerve agents to an English-speaking audience.

The Salisbury Attack

Mirzayanov has been interviewed by many outlets recently, giving his thoughts on the Salisbury attack. In an interview with Voice of America, he addressed the suggestion by the British Government that non-state actors could have originally stolen Novichoks from the decaying USSR:

Mirzayanov: The Soviet Union collapsed 27 years ago, and if somewhere in the republics there was pure Novichok, it has long since decomposed and is not suitable as a weapon.

Any chemical toxic substance decomposes, and there is no compound that retains its properties for a long time. In the first year, 2 percent is lost, in the second 3 (percent), and the resulting products of decomposition accelerate the process of disintegration. That is why the storage and disposal of toxic substances is a big problem, which, moreover, is more expensive than production.”

He then offered an explanation of how the agent in question was probably brought into the country. He said it was probably as a binary agent – two chemical weapon precursors stored separately, then mixed shortly before attack:

“Mirzayanov: … It is because of the difficulties in storage and disposal that no one now produces the so-called “final product.” Components are produced, “component parts” that are relatively harmless separately, which are combined immediately before use… 

… [T]he production of so-called “semi-products,” which are components of binary weapons, can be carried out quite officially. At some enterprise, they can carry out a plan for the production of pesticides without even knowing that they are actually producing chemical weapons.

Q: In your view, how easy was it to transport such substances across borders and then use them?

Mirzayanov: It (was) not very difficult. You need two glass vials and any agent for creating a high pressure  for example, light volatile gas. Ampules must be broken before use, and the mixed substances will provide the desired mixture. Then, as an aerosol, it can be sprayed. But this is a very crude version, and Im sure the FSB could come up with a more sophisticated means.”

Given this, could a non-state actor, like the Russian mafia, have produced the agent used to attack the Skripals? In an interview with the Guardian, Mirzayanov was dismissive of the suggestion:

“It’s very, very tough stuff… I don’t believe it. You need a very high-qualified professional scientist… Because it is dangerous stuff. Extremely dangerous. You can kill yourself. First of all you have to have a very good shield, a very particular container. And after that to weaponize it – weaponize it is impossible without high technical equipment. It’s impossible to imagine.”

According to the OPCW, weaponisation means adding the chemical agent to a munition or delivery device before targeting a victim. Thus, if we assume that the Novichok in question was indeed produced abroad, the picture Mirzayanov gives us is as follows: the chemical precursors could have been smuggled into the country separately. Before they could be used as a chemical weapon to target the Skripals, they would need to be weaponised domestically, that is, added to a delivery device. This requires a high degree of technical expertise, to which a mafia acting domestically simply would not have access.

Where Did the Novichok Agent Come From?

As we have seen, Mirzayanov dismisses the idea that mafias could be responsible for producing the Novichoks. That leaves State actors as the only potential culprits. Mirzayanov is convinced that it was the Kremlin alone who could have done this. Speaking in an interview held on March 14th with the French Press Agency (AFP), he offered two alternative explanations for where the Novichok agents used in the Salisbury attack came from: 

“’Only the Russians’ developed this class of nerve agents, said the chemist. ‘They kept it and are still keeping it in secrecy.’ The only other possibility, he said, would be that someone used the formulas in his book to make such a weapon.”

So either it was the Russians, or it was anyone else. As to the likelihood of the latter scenario, Mirzayanov doubts it:

“Mirzayanov: …This was really a demonstrative reprisal, but in my opinion, Moscow was sure that no one would find traces of the substance. This chemical agent does not officially exist; it is not mentioned in any of the lists of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Practically no one has been engaged in its development for almost 30 years. It is obvious to me that Moscow hoped that no one would catch them.”

The shrewd interviewer probed him on this assertion:

“Q: But you published the formula for Novichok eight years ago.

Mirzayanov: I don’t know if the FSB saw my book. Perhaps it was read in one of the (FSB) departments, but in another (FSB department), which was preparing the attack, they had heard nothing about it (the book).”

Moreover, Mirzayanov admitted, albeit grudgingly, that other countries have probably used his formulae to develop Novichoks for themselves:

Mirzayanov: The British could easily have synthesized it on the basis of the formulas that I published in my book, published in 2008… Each country takes care of its own security, and as part of the study of possible threats, a model could have been created. So the test samples could be from many countries, but the production was fine-tuned only in the USSR (former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) and Russia.”

Thus Mirzayanov’s explanation of why he thought the Russians believed they would get away with using Novichoks, was by casting aspersions on their reading habits. It is, of course, highly unlikely that Russian intelligence agencies had no idea that Novichoks were in the public domain, and were being widely studied.

Could it Only Have Been Russia?

Mirzayanov is sure the attack was carried out by Russia. However, he has given us enough information to be skeptical of that conclusion.

Firstly, he himself has admitted that the chemical structures of these weapons have been in the public domain for at least a decade. Indeed, he is the one who made them public.

Secondly, Mirzayanov admits that other countries have probably developed Novichoks for test purposes at least. His confidence that only Russia could have fine-tuned the agents seems misplaced – he has no idea what other countries have been up to for the last decade, or more.

Thus, based on information provided by the man who initially exposed the existence of Novichoks, we can already refute the Theresa May’s line that only Russia could have synthesised Novichoks.

But theory is one thing, and fact another. In fact, there is a long public record of other countries having contact with Novichoks. For instance, in 1999 the BBC reported that the actual original production facilities which were believed to have synthesised Novichoks were dismantled by the US. We can very plausibly infer that US military chemists will have therefore had at least some experience with Novichoks.

Moreover, according to Spectroscopy Now, in 2016, Iran, in full cooperation with the OPCW, synthesised Novichoks and added their formulae to the OPCW database. If Iran can do it under monitored conditions, there is absolutely no reason why better resourced nations couldn’t do the same.

The UK government knows all this. The wording of their own statements betrays their duplicity. Craig Murray, the ex-British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, who resigned after being disillusioned by the war on terror reports

“I have now received confirmation from a well placed FCO source that Porton Down scientists are not able to identify the nerve agent as being of Russian manufacture, and have been resentful of the pressure being placed on them to do so. Porton Down would only sign up to the formulation “of a type developed by Russia” after a rather difficult meeting where this was agreed as a compromise formulation. The Russians were allegedly researching, in the “Novichok” programme a generation of nerve agents which could be produced from commercially available precursors such as insecticides and fertilisers. This substance is a “novichok” in that sense. It is of that type. Just as I am typing on a laptop of a type developed by the United States, though this one was made in China.

To anybody with a Whitehall background this has been obvious for several days. The government has never said the nerve agent was made in Russia, or that it can only be made in Russia. The exact formulation “of a type developed by Russia” was used by Theresa May in parliament, used by the UK at the UN Security Council, used by Boris Johnson on the BBC yesterday and, most tellingly of all, “of a type developed by Russia” is the precise phrase used in the joint communique issued by the UK, USA, France and Germany yesterday:

This use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War.

When the same extremely careful phrasing is never deviated from, you know it is the result of a very delicate Whitehall compromise.” 

The Global State of Chemical Weapons

Boris Johnson claimed on Sunday that he has evidence ‘from within’ the last ten years that Russia has been stockpiling Novichoks. The meaning implied is that this is fresh evidence, though as Craig Murray notes, the wording allows for it to be nine years-old, out-of-date, irrelevant, and subsequently dismissed intelligence. However, if there really is long-standing intelligence regarding Russia and Novichoks, then it is alarming that our intelligence agencies have not informed the OPCW who, as recently as September 2017, issued the following statement

“The Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, made a statement today marking the completion of the full destruction of the 39,967 metric tons of chemical weapons possessed by the Russian Federation.

The Director-General stated: 

‘The completion of the verified destruction of Russia’s chemical weapons programme is a major milestone in the achievement of the goals of the Chemical Weapons Convention. I congratulate Russia and I commend all of their experts who were involved for their professionalism and dedication.’ ”

Naturally, Johnson’s statements were not echoed by any other government sources. Moreover, his proven track record of ‘misstatements’ does not go in his favour, and nor does the information provided by Mirzayanov that these weapons decay fast and are extremely expensive to maintain. The OPCW would have presumably noticed a massive part of Russia’s chemical weapons programme continuing. Indeed, the position of an international body designed to track and monitor chemical weapons at this point has surely has more authority than Boris Johnson’s supposed ‘intelligence.’

Returning to the OPCW, their statement confirms that any initial weaponised forms of Novichoks the USSR made have been dismantled. In fact, we could have said this with some confidence in 1999 when the US dismantled the main Novichok production site in Uzbekistan. However, the OPCW can give us certainty that any residual stocks are now depleted.

This does not entirely rule out Russia as a source of Novichoks, however. As Mirzayanov noted, Novichoks can be weaponised from unmonitored, relatively benign chemical precursors. However, to do so would require substantial chemical facilities in the UK – which we can assume the Russian state does not have. Thus, what we can therefore assume is that Novichoks in their weaponised forms could not have come from Russia, and it is also implausible to suggest the Russians weaponised them here. Assuming we trust the OPCW’s assessment  – and we have no reason not to – the Russian state seems to be low on the list of potential suspects.

But what about other state actors? Could someone else have smuggled weaponised Novichoks into Britain? Who still has active stocks of chemical weapons?

The USA is one country that has not yet destroyed its chemical weapon stockpile. This is of particular note given that their contact with Novichok-producing facilities. The US’ failure to rid itself of chemical weapons has not missed the notice of Putin, who used the OPCW declaration last year to lambast the USA for thrice delaying its target. Currently, the USA says it will take until 2023 for it to rid itself of its chemical weapons. To their credit at least, the USA has reduced its stock by 90%, and is publicly making steps towards destroying the rest.

While Porton Down may well have test samples of Novichoks, the UK stopped its chemical weapons programme in the 1950’s, and has since destroyed its own stockpile. This was something Margaret Thatcher bemoaned, proposing to her ministers in 1984 that the UK should restart their development. In the end, due to ‘political difficulties’, her proposals were stalled. The compromise was for the UK to secretly encourage the USA to update its stockpiles. A special relationship indeed.

Israel is another country of interest. Foreign Policy magazine reported in 2013 that it has major stocks of chemical weapons. However it has never joined the OPCW and declared its stock, and like North Korea, it has never ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. It therefore has an active stock of chemical weapons, with no public intention to reduce them.

Egypt, while probably having far fewer weapons than the better-resourced Israel, is in a similar position, claiming it is only reciprocating Israel’s stance.

There is also a long list of other countries with known or suspected Chemical Weapon stockpiles, including China, Japan, and various Eastern European nations.

Conclusions

From the above analysis we can infer that the use of Novichoks in no way exclusively points to the Russian State, or non-Russian mafias, for the following reasons:

  1. The chemical structure of these agents have been in the public domain for at least a decade. 
  2. Other countries have already developed these agents publicly, and it is likely many have done so secretly at least as test samples.
  3. The USA and Israel, among others, have active stocks of chemical weapons.
  4. Russia’s stockpile of chemical weapons has been publicly dismantled, as confirmed by the OPCW in 2017. 
  5. If Russian non-State actors stole Novichoks after the dissolution of the USSR, their stock would have decayed by now.
  6. Non-state Russian actors are unlikely to have the technical know-how or wherewithal to store or weaponise Novichoks safely.

It is clear then that Theresa May’s argument that the use of Novichoks immediately indicts the Kremlin is patently false. While Russia could well have been behind the Salisbury attack, there is a significant burden of proof on the government to demonstrate this with evidence. We would need to be convinced that Russia would use a chemical agent the OPCW says it doesn’t have, which has clear echoes of the Soviet label they are trying to shake off, to kill a spy it gave up in 2010, in the context of international pressure over Eastern Ghouta, Putin’s elections, and the World Cup. It would also need to demonstrate that Russian involvement in killing the Skripals is more likely than other countries with active stocks of chemical weapons, who have an interest in demonising Russia due to their support of the Assad-Regime in Syria.

Twenty three diplomats may well have already been expelled, but so far, concrete evidence for culpability has not been forthcoming.

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