Reliable Security Information

Novichok and its chemists

Novichok, meaning "new guy," "newcomer, or "novice," depending on the translation, the group name for deadly nerve agents created in the Soviet Union in the Seventies and developed into the early Nineties. Deployed in Salisbury, England, novichok has been used to poison ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. Rendering both comatose on a bench on March 4, the attack set off a furious response from emergency workers and chemical weapons experts from Britain's premier lab on weapons of chemical and biologicla mass destruction, Porton Down. Porton Down subsequently identified the poison used on the Skripals, who were in critical condition, as novichok or a related compound, probably through analysis by gas chromatograph-mass spectrometry.

Who is responsible? It points to Russia, the attack order given from Moscow even though the government there has repeatedly denied involvement and that a program to produce novichok never existed. This was immediately exposed as untrue by scientists/employees of the program who came forward to give their thoughts.

Although the novichok name seems new to a lay audience, it's been known for a long time. The Russian program (formerly Soviet Union research that had started in the Seventies) was initially exposed in the early Ninieties by one of its insiders, Vil Mirzayanov, in articles published by Kuranty (October 1991) and the Moscow News (with Lev Fyodorov, September 1992). Mirzayanov was arrested on charges of treason but the case against him fell apart and by 1995 he was in the United States.

Mirzayanov's goal had been to expose novichok agents, to have them prohibited, too. And while Russia joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997, a treaty that outlaws the production of said weapons as well as their stockpiling, the novichok compounds were not acknowledged.

"The US engaged directly in bilateral discussions with Russian government officials [on novichok], but Russia denied everything and the US got nowhere," according to Milton Leitenberg, an arms control expert at the Center for International and Security Studies, in a recent e-mail exchange on the matter.

The Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) "could not verify [novichok] production," Leitenberg continued. "The OPCW and bilateral [chemical weapons] inspection teams (US, UK) were not permitted access to the possible storage and/or production sites."

Mirzayanov continued his efforts to publicize novichok, most notably with a self-published book, "State Secrets: An Insider's Chronicle of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program," which included for formulas of some of the agents but his efforts were stymied. Until now -- a major incident, a nerve agent attack on a CWC member's soil.

The Russian government has turned this around in the current crisis insisting with a lack of shame that the work of Mirzayanov and others proliferated novichok internationally -- to the United States, the UK, Sweden, the Czech Republic or Slovakia -- and it is they who were to blame for the attack on the Skripals.

On March 20, Russian novichok chemist Vladimir Uglev contradicted this misinformation in an interview for the Russian English publication, the Bell. Uglev had been part of a long term research effort, for his part from the early Seventies to 1988, on what became known as novichok.

Also known as the Foliant program, Uglev said he and a colleague's groups had developed four separate primary novichok compounds, three liquids and a powder, "designed as alternative to the Soviet analogy of the American nerve agent, VX." "Several hundred analogues of this series" were made, he said.

When asked what would become of the Skripals, Uglev replied they were only "technically alive." It was a cold statement, one he moderated slightly for the Guardian newspaper a week later by mentioning medicine had advanced decades since the invention of the presumably antidote-less novichoks. (At this time, Yulia Skripal was said to be recovering, more than "technically alive," and talking with health care workers in the hospital.)

According to Uglev's Bell interview, the novichok agents were "tenacious" and could be carried using a "combat case" containing cotton balls or other custom-made implements impregnated with the poison. In fact, Uglev added the Skripal attack brought to mind another assassination, that of a banker, Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary in 1995. Uglev recognized it as a novichok strike, one delivered through a contaminated telephone handset. "The specific dose was developed by my group ..." Uglev said and he had subsequently been questioned by investigators over it.

Finally there was Professor Leonid Rink, another novichok chemist, who appeared in the Russian press to apparently push his government's position, that the attack could have come from anywhere.

"For any country with weapons of mass destruction, for the United Kingdom, the States, China and all developed countries, where there is at least some chemistry, to create such weapons is a zero problem," said Rink to Ria Novosti

"For a specialist, Moscow's involvement on this ground is absurd, and it can make an impression on a western man in the street. This is calculated."

Rink was known to Uglev. "Rink's group was tasked with developing my [novichok] technology," Uglev told the Bell.

As it turns out Rink had another unusual qualification. He appears to be the only person in the public record to have peddled novichok, having sold a small amount, apparently to a criminal group according to an interview with Novaya Gazeta.

Still, that small amount, about a quarter of a gram in a "sealed ampoule," contained enough lethality to kill 100. Rink, in legal testimony, said he had stored four ampoules in his garage. He received 1500-1800 dollars for one ampoule disguised in a "handle." Rink told investigators he knew it was being handed over for use against a person.

"The expert at the [Rink] interrogation confirmed that the data of the analysis of the toxic agent manufactured by Rink coincide with the data of the substance that the banker Kivelidi was poisoned with," reads the Russian publication.

It seems certain that Skripal incident has furnished enough evidence for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to include novichok in the Chemical Weapons Convention's list of poisons.

As to why the Russian government might think it could get away with such a brazen attack it may be helpful to consider the words of the Russian chemists.

Collectively, they are a bit off in tone, possessing a kind of nasty pride. Consider the finality in which Uglev pronounced the Skripals only "technically alive" and the care he took to mention a colleague who developed novichok with him. "I find it my duty to state this in his name and in his memory," he told the Bell. It's startling, a commendation one might expect to be given to someone who made a new medicine, not a batch of deadly poisons for assassination.

With regard to Leonid Rink, besides being the novichok salesman, there were the words to Ria Novosti to the effect that Russia could not be behind the attack on the Skripals, because if it had been they would have been dead.

George Smith, Ph.D., also blogs here.

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