This Monday, British prime minister Theresa May delivered a statement to the House of Commons on the fate of two Russians who were found slumped on a park bench, unresponsive, in the city of Salisbury. Former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were rushed to the hospital after suffering symptoms related to chemical weapons exposure. Over the week, British law enforcement and laboratory experts have blamed the nerve agent “Novichok” for the attack.
In the conclusion of the British government, all roads lead to the Kremlin as being the party responsible. “Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at Porton Down...Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations, and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal,” May told the Commons to a shout of “shame!” from the back benches.
What Is It?
Novichok is something of a mystery to chemical scientists, mainly because the Russians have never officially confirmed its existence. Col. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the former Director of Britain’s Biological, Chemical Radiation and Nuclear department told the Daily Express that the Novichok is designed to be extremely difficult for chemical sensors to pick up. The effects of exposure are similar to VX nerve agent, except five to eight times more lethal.
According to Bretton-Gordon, it “would have taken around 40 minutes” for Skripal and his daughter to experience Novichok’s harmful impact, which includes severe disorientation, heart failure, foaming at the mouth and constriction of the airways. Dying from this chemical weapon is like dying from sarin.
A Russian scientist who was a part of the chemical weapons program described the time when he was accidentally exposed to the toxin. He experienced hallucinations and blurred vision, only to die shortly after he was interviewed by an American reporter. It’s not a good way to go.
There is still a lot the scientific community doesn’t know about Novichok. Mark Bishop, a chemical weapons specialist at the Middlebury Institute in Monterey, California, remarked that the weapon’s stability and the amount of time its effects last are still open questions.
Where Did It Come From?
In 1987, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev declared to the world that the Soviet Union was ceasing its production of chemical weapons (CW) and building a facility where its existing stockpile could be safely destroyed. Notwithstanding the announcement of a unilateral suspension of CW manufacturing, the U.S. intelligence community was always cautious about Gorbachev’s claim. And it turns out the spooks at Langley were right; while Moscow did stop producing chemical weapons, research and development of a more advanced class of chemical warfare agents continued. In fact, the same year Gorbachev made his announcement, Russian scientists produced what would come to be called Novichok.
None of this would have been known were it not for a former Russian chemical researcher named Vil Mirzayanov, who disclosed the existence of this top-secret program to several newspapers in Russia and the United States. Mirzayanov would later be arrested, jailed, and charged in 1992 for declassifying state secrets, only to have the charges dropped thanks to Western pressure on Boris Yeltsin’s administration. Asked by the New York Times why he decided to risk his freedom and tell the world about the existence of the program, Mirzayanov cited moral reasons.
Daniel R. DePetris is a world affairs columnist for Reuters, a frequent contributor to the American Conservative and the National Interest , and a foreign-policy analyst based in New York, NY.