As a country, it is full of contradictions. One sees the growth of private industry and an openness to tourism. It hosts international sports events. Yet corruption is rife and the country has a good number of oligarchs, who are very, very rich. It is very difficult to speak out against President Putin or his friends. Then there is the extreme poverty, especially in the eastern part of Russia. Evangelical Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious groups are being targeted, including the forcible closing down of churches.
These days, the Russian Government has been accused of interfering in a number of political events (the recent American election and the EU referendum). And now there is circus that is the supposed involvement of the Russian FSB (what was the KGB) in the use of a chemical agent in the attack on an ex-Soviet spy and his daughter in Salisbury, a town in the south of England, not too far from Portondown, the UK centre for research into how to deal with chemical and biological ‘agents’. The UK Government has said it is almost certain that the ‘attack’ on British soil was orchestrated by Russia. As a consequence the ‘game’ of expulsions has begun. What makes it different from previous events is the sheer number of countries that have supported the UK in expelling a number of Russian diplomats.
What do we know about the chemical Novichok?
Novichok (Russian: Новичо́к, “newcomer”) is a series of nerve agents the Soviet Union and Russia developed between 1971 and 1993.[a] Russian scientists who developed the agents claim they are the deadliest nerve agents ever made, with some variants possibly five to eight times more potent than VX, and others up to ten times more potent than soman.
They were designed as part of a Soviet program codenamed “FOLIANT”. Five Novichok variants are believed to have been weaponised for military use. The most versatile was A-232 (Novichok-5). Novichok agents have never been used on the battlefield.
In 2016 Iranian chemists synthesised five Novichok agents for analysis and produced detailed mass spectral data which was added to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Central Analytical Database. Previously there had been no detailed descriptions of their spectral properties in open scientific literature.
Russia’s record with Chemical and Biological Agents
The Soviet Union’s chemical weapons programme was in such disarray in the aftermath of the Cold War that some toxic substances and know-how could have got into the hands of criminals, say people who dealt with the programme at the time.
“Could somebody have smuggled something out?” said Amy Smithson, a biological and chemical weapons expert.
“I certainly wouldn’t rule that possibility out, especially a small amount and particularly in view of how lax the security was at Russian chemical facilities in the early 1990s.”
While nerve agents degrade over time, if the pre-cursor ingredients for the nerve agent were smuggled out back then, stored in proper conditions and mixed recently, they could still be deadly in a small-scale attack, two experts on chemical weapons told Reuters.
Accounts of security deficiencies at weapons facilities indicate that, at least for a period in the 1990s, Moscow was not in firm control of its chemical weapons stockpiles or the people guarding them.
When Russian banking magnate Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary died in 1995 from organ failure after a military-grade poison was found on the telephone receiver of his Moscow office, an employee of a state chemical research institute confessed to having secretly supplied the toxin.
In a closed-door trial, Kivelidi’s business partner was convicted of poisoning Kivelidi over a dispute. At the trial, prosecutors said the business partner had obtained the poison, via several intermediaries, from Leonid Rink, an employee of a state chemical research institute known as GosNIIOKhT.
The same institute, according to Vil Mirzayanov, a Soviet chemical weapons scientist who later turned whistleblower, was part of the state chemical weapons programme and helped develop the “Novichok” family of nerve agents that Britain has said was responsible for poisoning Skripal.
In a statement to investigators after his arrest, viewed by Reuters, Rink said he was in possession of poisons created as part of the chemical weapons programme which he stored in his garage. On more than one occasion, he said, he sold the substances to supplement his income and pay down a debt.
The poison in the Kivelidi case was sold in a deal brokered by an ex-policeman contact of Rink’s. Rink handed over the poison, in an ampoule hidden inside a pen presentation box, in a meeting at Moscow’s Belorussky station, according to his statement.
Rink received a one-year suspended prison sentence for “misuse of powers,” according to Boris Kuznetsov, who was a lawyer for Kivelidi’s business partner during the trial.
Kuznetsov said he believed his client was innocent, and that Kivelidi was poisoned by rogue intelligence officers acting without the knowledge of the Russian president at the time, Boris Yeltsin.
The Soviet chemical weapons programme was a sprawling operation spread across far-flung provincial cities that incorporated the world’s largest chemical arsenal, publicly declared at 40,000 tonnes.
When the Soviet Union ceased to exist, funding dried up, scientists’ salaries were in several months of arrears, staff morale slumped and facilities were left to fend for themselves with little government control or oversight.
According to a 1995 report published by the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington security think-tank, and based on accounts from industry insiders, physical security at the facilities was deficient.
It said railroad entrances to the facilities were padlocked but unguarded, and at some sites chemical weapons were stored in buildings with wooden doors and tiled roofs that an intruder could get into with little difficulty.
Chemical weapons were stored in silos without tamper-proof seals, making it difficult to detect if small quantities were being siphoned off.
A second report by the Stimson Center four years later highlighted the risk of Soviet chemical weapons scientists – who earned a pittance when they were paid at all – being recruited by criminals, terrorists, or rogue states.
“All the ingredients for successful black marketeering are present through the chemical and biological complexes – under- or unemployed, scientists and managers, valuable commodities at far-flung locations, and poor security,” the report said.
In some cases in the early 1990s, highly toxic chemical agents wound up outside Russian territory, in ex-Soviet facilities in newly-independent states such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.
According to Mirzayanov, the former Soviet chemical weapons scientist, the “Novichok” family of nerve agents developed by the GosNIIOKhT institute was tested in Nukus, Uzbekistan.
In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, Mirzayanov, now resident in Princeton, New Jersey, said though he believed the Kremlin was behind the Skripal attack.
The ex-Soviet republics outside Russia that suddenly found themselves hosting ex-Soviet chemical weapons facilities were even less equipped than Moscow to secure them.
U.S. troops who arrived in Uzbekistan after 2001 to establish an air base in the city of Khanabad came across stockpiles of old munitions that had not been accounted for, which turned out to contain chlorine and other chemical compounds, said someone who was present at the time and who spoke on condition of anonymity.
People in the chemical weapons field said security since the 1990s had improved drastically, helped by Western aid, the transfer of weapons stockpiles from neighbouring states to Russia and a stronger Russian state.
Russia’s trade and industry ministry, which oversaw the disposal of chemical weapons stockpiles, said in a statement sent to Reuters that Russia had destroyed 100 percent of the stocks in strict compliance with international commitments, and faster than the United States.
The ministry did not address questions about chemical weapons smuggling in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse.
Ukraine’s state security service, which tracks weapons proliferation, said it had no immediate comment.
The Uzbek foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment. The state-owned Kazakh nuclear company which operates the Pavlodar Chemical Plant, a former chemical weapons facility, and the Energy Ministry, to which the nuclear company reports, did not reply to questions.
Vil Mirzayanov, as mentioned above, is supposed to have published the formula for the nerve agent. If that is true, then anyone could have used it. The issue is why was Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33 attacked with such an agent? A possible explanation can be found here http://www.news.com.au/world/europe/the-daughter-of-former-russian-spy-sergei-skripal-was-the-real-target-of-the-nerve-agent-attack-relative-claims/news-story/5d7bb94389d882b6a41ee4afc5cc5d01 and here https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/russian-spy-poisoning-skripal-salisbury_uk_5a9fbe18e4b0d4f5b66bcd91
Gwyn Winfield—the editorial director of CBRNe World magazine, a trade publication for those dealing with chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive threats—said it’s possible that the Russians continued to develop novichoks in the years after the publication of Mirzayanov’s book. But even then, the British were probably able to reliably gather minute traces with a novichok’s unique chemical signature.
“You’d have to detect the phosphate chain, and they [mass spectrometers] are probably looking at broad families detecting something hazardous in the environment,” Winfield added, referring to a flame phytometry detector that the British Army likely used for chemical identification.
Winfield said it’s also important to note that we don’t yet have any idea what particular novichok variant hit the Skripals and the police officer who responded to them.
When Winfield first heard about the incident, he and other journalists thought it was a fentanyl overdose. “When the Salisbury Hospital shut down, [it was done so for] fentanyl poisoning,” Winfield told The Daily Beast. “That sounded right, that we were looking at two individuals who had overdosed on something.”
Fentanyl wouldn’t be out of the question: Prior to its more recent use in the United States as an opioid, Winfield said the drug has been used for assassination attempts. “It was effective and inefficient, and there was plausible deniability,” he said, pointing out that victims could be thought to have overdosed.
When Prime Minister May came out and said the culprit was novichoks, Winfield said he was surprised, particularly given that Skripal reportedly became aggressive, waved his arms, and pointed to the sky while yelling in Russian, he said. “Those don’t fit into what we know about organophosphate exposures,” Winfield explained—which means that while novichok is being pointed to as the source nerve agent, it’s possible that it was swirled with another drug that produced hallucinogenic qualities that were more similar to a fentanyl poisoning.
In all the ‘fuss’ about the attempted murder, it is time to put the issue into context. This involves a couple of people who are the centre of a political ‘crisis’. But, what about the other more pressing issues that are happening around the world? For example, the situation in the South China Seas (where China has claimed jurisdiction over large swathes of the area and so is at odds with her neighbours and the USA), or the Yemen (where millions are dying due to lack of food and medicine as bombing continues), or the growth of the drug cartels, human trafficking and the arms trade. These involve a lot more people and just because some of the ‘issues’ are ‘over there’ does not mean we should treat people any different than we do in the UK, for they all have the potential of developing into wider disputes and much loss of life. And at a time when relations with Russia over the Ukraine and Syria are at a all-time low, it is not diplomatic to accuse it until definite and corroborated evidence can be presented to them show Mrs May and Mr Johnson calling them ‘names’.
So, I call upon the media, government and the public to stop jumping to conclusions over this affair, and see it in a wider world context.