Liberty Nation presents part two of our Novichok series. In part one, we addressed the details of the two Novichok poisonings that have taken place on English soil in 2018, and their political ramifications. In this installment, we look into the allegations that Russia is the prime – and indeed, only – suspect for these crimes.
“There is no alternative conclusion, other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr. Skripal and his daughter, and for threatening the lives of other British citizens,” said British Prime Minister Theresa May in an accusation that worsened the already bad relations between Russia and the West.
May was referring to the use of the Soviet-developed chemical Novichok to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal on English soil, in March 2018. The incident has had major diplomatic ramifications, yet there is still no proof that Russia was responsible for the attack. The case against Russia depends simply on the idea that no other country could possibly have had access to the Novichok family of chemicals.
Moscow has repudiated the charge by arguing that the toxin could have originated in a handful of other countries, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the U.S., the U.K., and Sweden. Is Russia simply trying to pass the buck, or is there a basis for this claim? Did anybody else have access to this toxic chemical?
Yes, They Did
In 2016, Iranian researchers published in the scientific journal Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry that they had analyzed samples of Novichok. They reported passing their findings on to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for use in their database. Although the experiments at the time held little interest for the public, a summary was also published in the industry e-zine Spectroscopy Now, in 2017.
According to investigative reporters from German broadcasting outlets NDR and WDR, and the Die Zeit and Suedeutsche Zeitung newspapers, Sweden and Germany also had access to Novichok dating back to the 1990s, when the German foreign intelligence service (BND), was reportedly given a sample of the chemical by a Russian defector. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl then allegedly ordered the BND to share the substance with Berlin’s “closest allies,” including the U.S. and the U.K., and later Canada, France, and Holland. “Some NATO countries were secretly producing the chemical agent in small quantities” in order to develop protective equipment and antidotes, reported the media outlets. German authorities have not commented on the assertions.
The government of the Czech Republic has been somewhat divided on whether they have or have not produced (and subsequently destroyed) a version of Novichok in 2017. President Milos Zeman ordered an investigation into the possibility, and in May told a local TV channel that the country’s Military Counter-Intelligence had confirmed the production of the substance in a Czech lab. This was later disputed by civilian counter-intelligence agency BIS, which claimed the substance produced had been a-230, not the substance found in Salisbury, which was identified as a-234. While Russians have decided that a-234 was the Skripal poison, this has not been confirmed by the OPCW or British government, who merely identified the chemical vaguely as belonging to the Novichok family. According to the book Compendium of Chemical Warfare Agents, by forensic chemist Steven L. Hoenig, a-230, a-232, and 2-234 are all designated Novichok agents.
Only Russia…Or Anyone Who Read My Book
Publishing in 2007, Hoenig admitted that when it came to Novichoks, there was little information available. Had he waited a year or two to write his compendium, however, he may have had a little more to go on. In 2008 not only was the existence of Novichok disclosed to the public, but even the formula itself was published. Vil Mirzayanov was a Soviet chemist who worked in a secret chemical weapons laboratory developing substances including Novichok for over 25 years. In 1992, he was charged with treason after publishing “state secrets” about Russia’s chemical weapons program. The case was eventually dropped over a lack of evidence and in 1995 Mirzayanov moved to the U.S., where he was granted asylum and informed the authorities of his Novichok research.
In 2008, he published the English-language book State Secrets: An Insider’s Chronicle of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program, which included detailed information about the development of Novichok, as well as the precise details of each version’s chemical formulation. According to Mirzayanov:
“Some people from Washington persistently advised me not to include the formulas of the chemical agents… I asked why it would be a bad idea to publish this information, since it would be for the safety of all people. Then the governments would work to have those chemical agents and their precursors included into the Control List. They responded, “Terrorists could use them for their criminal actions.” This kind of reasoning is used all the time now to scare people and prevent any discussion. We are already used to ignoring a lot of real problems thanks to that…
All of the advice people gave me not to publish formulas of the Novichok chemical agents, based on the argument that terrorists would use them, does not ring true. These agents should be acknowledged and immediately put under the control of the OPCW, the organization that administers the Chemical Weapons Convention.”
Mirzayanov claims his motivation for publishing was to increase awareness of Novichok agents, “for the sake of the world safety,” as well as information for use in further research. He also says that only experts in well-funded government labs would be capable of safely producing such chemical agents without accidentally poisoning themselves and that some of his colleagues had died as a result of mishandling the substance.
Are the formulas provided by Mirzayanov accurate? The Associated Press reported that Russian Defence Ministry General Igor Kirillov called the book “complicity to terrorism,” implying he thought they were genuine. Professor Leonid Rink, another scientist who worked to create Novichok, also admitted that other countries could use the book to synthesize their own samples of the chemical.
Rink, previously convicted for selling similar poisons used in murders, told Reuters it was unlikely that Russia would be so careless as to use an agent obviously connected to them, but according to the Independent newspaper:
Though the formula for the nerve agent was once secret, Rink said other countries including Britain, the US and China were now capable of manufacturing versions of the substance, however, analysis of the poison used in Salisbury should reveal whether or not it was “cooked up” in Russia.
The OPCW didn’t take Mirzayanov seriously, it appears, as its Scientific Advisory Board claimed in 2013 that “it has insufficient information to comment on the existence or properties of ‘Novichoks.’” This attitude was mirrored by scientists at the U.K. Ministry of Defence lab Porton Down, who analyzed the samples used in the 2018 poisonings, as well as being situated only a few miles from the incidents. Leaked documents, however, show that they may well have been playing down their knowledge of Novichok and its formulas.
Who Knew What?
Was the U.S. government aware of Novichok and Mirzayanov’s book? It certainly was, as Wikileaks documents reveal none other than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instructed envoys to “Avoid any substantive discussion of the Mirazayanov book “State Secrets: An Insider’s View of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program” or so-called ‘Fourth Generation Agents.’” The classified document also instructs delegates on how to respond if anybody raised the topic of the book at a 2009 meeting of the Australia Group, an affiliation of various allied countries to control the export of controlled substances and prevent the spread of chemical weapons:
- Report any instances in which the book is raised.
- Not start or provoke conversations about the book or engage substantively if it comes up in conversation.
- Express a lack of familiarity with the issue.
- Quietly discourage substantive discussions by suggesting that the issue is ‘best left to experts in capitals.
U.S. State Department cables reveal that the topic was discussed during a Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) at The Hague, but U.K. and U.S. diplomats “indicated a lack of familiarity with the subject matter and indicated no interest in pursuing the discussion further.” The documents also reveal that the diplomats asked the CIA, the National Security Council, and the State Department how to deal with questions about Mirzayanov’s book and that the U.S. had discussed the book with counterparts in the U.K., Finland, and the Netherlands.
It also shows that the U.K. “Ministry of Defense has spoken to its counterparts in the Netherlands and Finland, apprised them of the conversation, and asked each country to provide guidance to its del[egate] members not/not to raise this issue in the future.”
So, is there truly “no alternative conclusion” than that Russia was behind the Novichok poisonings in England? Perhaps the Skripals were indeed targeted by the Kremlin, however, that is far from the only possibility. Not only did multiple countries know about Novichok and its chemical makeup, but so did anyone who had read a book that was widely available to the public since 2009. Not to mention that Porton Down, a major lab that is likely to possess samples of the chemical, is situated only a few miles from both poisonings.
In the third and final installment of this series, we will explore the strange connections between the Novichok poisonings and the dossier that tied President Trump to the Russian Collusion scandal.