2 months after Salisbury’s ‘novichok attack’: is Russia still to blame?

2 months after Salisbury’s ‘novichok attack’: is Russia still to blame?

In Salisbury and in Douma, Russia denies involvement: two alleged chemical weapons attacks perpetrated within the space of two months. Going against the grain of our media’s Russophobia to examine the cold hard facts is seen as de facto allegiance to Moscow in our current political climate, but two months after the Salsibury attack I want to re-examine the evidence, to fill in the pieces of the puzzle that Russophobic media leave out. I want to see what information one average Internet-user has at their disposal to cut through the web of misinformation spun by London, Washington, and Moscow.

Key to Russia’s alleged involvement in the attack by Theresa May is the claim that only Russia could synthesize novichok1. This allegation is quite simply a lie: an Iranian research paper2, published in August 2016, which is available in the public domain [you can read it here] and was conducted in association with the OPCW, managed to synthesise five novichok agents, analysing the:

“mass spectra of a series of O‐alkyl N‐[bis(dimethylamino)methylidene]‐P‐methylphosphonamidates for CWC [Chemical Weapons Convention] verification purposes”.

That mouthful of a name highlights with extreme clarity that not only can non-Russian scientists synthesize at least five forms of this compound (from methoxy- to the more exotic 2,6-dimethylphenoxy-), but that they have experimentally analysed its chemical structure, and have proposed pathways for how the substances would fragment, an important property for dating which batch of novichok a particular compound may be from.

Fragmentation pathway of novichok - GeoIssues

the fragmentation pathway of novichok – without even understanding the paper’s figure, the detailed understanding of novichok that the OPCW has is clear

In their methodology the scientists even specify where their reagents, methylphosphonic difluoride and isopropanol-d6, were purchased, from the companies Sigma-Aldrich in St Louis, USA, and Fluka and Merck in Germany. Novichoks were designed by the USSR to evade detection by the OPCW by mixing two industrially-available chemicals, called binary agents, and as such their precursory agents often have legitimate agricultural uses, for example as pesticides3. The details the Iranian scientists give are far from a complete recipe, but both ingredients and outcome are there for the world to see.

In blunter words, if Iranian scientists can synthesize novichok, a great many more states must have novichok stockpiled, even if only for ‘defensive analysis’. We can hardly suppose that Porton Down, only 9.8 km away from the Zizzi’s on Castle Street4 in Salisbury, would have been so negligent as to ignore recent developments in novichok synthesis. Moreover, the USA appears to also have had some level of access to novichok science since as far back as 1999, having helped Uzbekistan dismantle and decontaminate suspected novichoks produced in Nukus and tested on the Ustyurt Plateau, the site of alleged Soviet-era chemical weapons research5, 6. Then, as now, Russia claims: “No scientific research or development under the title Novichok was carried out”; these are the words of Nebenzia, Russia’s envoy to the UN, in 20187.

To thicken the plot, the US-domiciled, 1991-whistleblowing Soviet scientist, Vil Mirazayanov, who developed novichoks as the USSR crumbled, claims successful tests of Novichok-7 were completed by Russia in the early 1990s8. Meanwhile, Reuters’ analysis9 throws out the suggestion of novichok science sold on the black market: as the USSR crumbled, such “far-flung” outposts of chemical weapons, “stored in silos without tamper-proof seals”, could have easily ended up traded across the world. At the end of the day, who knows where novichoks are now stored?

A detail I find persistently intriguing and infuriating, like a stone I can’t remove from my shoe, is that Porton Down can identify the toxic chemical used as ‘novichok’10, but – to the media – they are, firstly, unable to comment on its location of manufacture, relying on other UK ‘governmental evidence’ to incriminate Russia; and, secondly, they are unable to publicly delineate which novichok agent it is10, even though spectroscopy data in the public domain details the novichok agent to five different alkyl group structures1. Despite the OPCW’s independent investigation, its results are classified, and they seem to demur to the UK’s investigation; in its publicly-available toxicology report on the Skripal’s biomedical fluids, the “toxic chemical” is of “high purity” but “the OPCW team confirm the findings of the United Kingdom”11. I believe that such lack of transparency besmirches the name of science, and even if they incriminate the correct actor in the end, as an independent Nobel-peace-prize-winning organization the least they can do is to pin the agent down a single chemical.

Police forensic tent in Salisbury - GeoIssues

the forensic tent in Salisbury where the Skripals collapsed

Other details are also uncomfortably imprecise: how was the ‘novichok’ administered? Novichoks decay quickly, and it’s unlikely that it could have survived the journey from Moscow made by Julia Skripal earlier that day, despite powdery residue found on their clothing. Was it blown through the air vents in their BMW? 12. Was it, therefore, administered in the UK? In either case, whom by?

Why didn’t the Skripal’s die from the attack? The NHS did a fantastic job at administering atropines and putting them into intensive care until the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, inhibited by nerve agents, was re-synthesized by the body13. Nonetheless, for a nerve agent reputedly 5 to 8 times more potent than VX, a very similar agent,8, their survival either indicates a minuscule dosage, a botched job, or that the chemical agent wasn’t in fact novichok.

And why did Putin, if Putin did indeed order the attack, decide to do so two weeks before his election, despite his secure position for victory? Moscow has a lot more to lose than gain by igniting a cold war over a retired and largely forgotten double agent.

We are unlikely to know the actor(s) responsible at any point in the foreseeable future, and my questions are likely to seem overly defamatory in hindsight, but what’s important is to avoid assuming that, just because out government has incriminated Russia, that Russia is guilty. We cannot let democracy succumb to Russophobia, even if Russia is trampling its way closer towards autocracy.

References:

[1] The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/mar/26/130-people-feared-exposed-to-novichok-in-spy-attack-says-pm

[2] Rapid communications in mass spectroscopy, Fragmentation pathways and structural characterization of organophosphorus compounds related to the Chemical Weapons Convention by electron ionization and electrospray ionization tandem mass spectrometry, Hosseini et al., 2016

[3] The New Scientist: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2163502-what-are-novichok-nerve-agents-and-did-russia-do-it/

[4] OpenStreetMap data

[5] The New York Times, 1999, https://www.nytimes.com/1999/05/25/world/us-and-uzbeks-agree-on-chemical-arms-plant-cleanup.html

[6] BBC News, 1999 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/415742.stm

[7] The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/14/uk-spy-poisoning-russia-tells-un-it-did-not-make-nerve-agent-used-in-attack

[8] Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN), https://cen.acs.org/articles/96/i12/Nerve-agent-attack-on-spy-used-Novichok-poison.html

[9] Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-russia-stockpiles/secret-trial-shows-risks-of-nerve-agent-theft-in-post-soviet-chaos-experts-idUSKCN1GQ2RH

[10] The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/apr/03/porton-down-experts-unable-to-verify-precise-source-of-novichok

[11] OPCW public report, https://www.opcw.org/fileadmin/OPCW/S_series/2018/en/s-1612-2018_e_.pdf

[12] Science Mag, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/03/uk-attack-shines-spotlight-deadly-nerve-agent-developed-soviet-scientists

[13] Sky News, https://news.sky.com/story/miracle-recovery-how-sergei-and-yulia-skripal-survived-the-novichok-attack-11318984

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