“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.
Carl Sagan, an American astronomer
“A wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence”.
David Hume, a Scottish philosopher
by Eugenia for the Saker Blog
Britain accused Russia of poisoning a double agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia using a super-secret nerve agent with an easy to remember name “Novichok” (“a newbie” in Russian). The accusation came with a suspicious speed: the Skripals were poisoned on March 4, 2018, but on March 6 the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was already raving before the Parliament about Russia’s guilt: “We don’t know exactly what has taken place in Salisbury, but if it’s as bad as it looks, it is another crime in the litany of crimes that we can lay at Russia’s door”. British prime Minister Teresa May came out with her now famous “highly likely” before the Parliament on May 12, or 7 days after the event.
Let’s see how bad does it look from a purely scientific, factual standpoint? When one starts looking for the information about Novichok, it soon becomes evident that most of it originates from one source: Vil Mirzayanov, a former Russian scientist who used to work at the State Union Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology. According to him, he was involved in the development of the fourth-generation chemical weapons before suddenly, in 1992, growing conscience and disclosing the existence of this program. Mirzayanov and his co-author Lev Feodorov, a chemist and environmental activist, published a paper in Russia and gave information to an American journalist Will Englund for the simultaneous publication in the US.
Mirzayanov claimed that the Soviet Union developed a binary nerve agent 8-10-times more potent that the American VX. A binary agent is a compound produced in a chemical reaction from two benign precursors right before use. Such agents offer obvious advantages: the production is much easier with no extraordinary safety precautions required, storage is also much simplified, no need to stockpile the actual chemical weapons agent (CWA), there is no problem with stability of the CWA, et cetera. The US spent significant resources on the binary CWA program of its own. Interestingly, in the original publications of 1992 the agent in question was simply referred to as binary agent. The name “Novichok” first surfaced in the 1994 report by Lev Feodorov about the chemical weapons in Russia. According to Vladimir Uglev, a chemist who worked at the same institute as Mirzayanov on the new series of CWA, the official name of the program was “Foliant”. Mirzayanov later confirmed that.
The believable part of the story is that the Soviet Union and later Russia would have a successful chemical weapons program similar to that in the US. Uglev specifically stated that the Foliant program was meant as the answer to the American VX agent. The quantities of the agents produced ranged from several milligrams to kilograms, and several hundreds compound were supposedly synthesized – all this points to the development stage of the program. There is no indication that any of the agents were ever weaponized, i.e. munitions for delivery of the CWA to the enemy were designed, except for the statements of Mirzayanov. However, by his own admission, he wasn’t involved in weaponization, and, thus, he is unlikely to have a firsthand knowledge about it. Remarkably, Uglev said that although his group developed several deadly substances, attempts to develop binary formulations failed, and no binary agents were ever produced.
Uglev’s statements regarding his work are much more specific than Mirzayanov’s and, thus, more believable. Besides, Uglev, unlike Mirzayanov, was involved in the actual development of the agents. Mirzayanov’s job, as the Head of the Counterintelligence Department, was to control the space around the institute, and he had no part in developing the technology. A suggestion by Mirzayanov in his many interviews to various Western media that Novichok was brought to the UK as a binary version (“It’s two ampules, small containers”) and then the poisonous agent was produced right before administration to the victims using some sort of a device (“put them together in a spray or something, and after that, some mechanism which is mixing them, a couple seconds and after that you’re shooting”) appears to be pure fantasy.
If we agree that highly poisonous agents (which we’ll continue calling Novichok for convenience regardless of their original name) were indeed developed in the USSR and inherited by Russia, whether in the binary form or not, two important questions need to be asked: (1) whether an agent of the Novichok series could be produced outside Russia and (2) whether the British could be on the solid ground scientifically attributing the agent used to poison the Skripals to Russia.
The answer to the first question is yes. If the technology is known, even partially, then any well-equipped university or government chemistry lab could do it. However, the general attitude is that the Novichok technology is so very top-secret that nothing is known about it. For example, a report in the journal Toxins stated as recently as in 2014 that “the principle of these substances (referring to A-230, A-232, and A-234 of the series) is, however, secret, and the admissible data are controversial”. This super-secrecy is strongly emphasized in the media, for it forms the basis for the accusation against Russia as the sole holder of this precious information. I consider this claim highly improbable. Having witnessed firsthand the condition of science in Russia in 1990s, and that of the society as a whole, I find it impossible to believe that any technology could have remained secret till this day. Interestingly, Mirzayanov himself in his interview to the Russian BBC on March 16th stated that Novichok could be synthesized in the US, where several of his colleagues from the Institute emigrated to, or in China. This is most likely perfectly true, for hundreds of thousands of Russians scientists of every variety emigrated to the West after 1991 bringing their expertise with them. Funny thing is that in the same interview Mirzayanov, without missing a beat, argues that only Russia could have been behind the Skripal affair, because “Russia is the country that invented it, has experience, weaponized it”. Well, weaponizing means adapting a poisonous agent to be used as a weapon of mass destruction. Why would one need weaponization, if the goal is to poison two people – or one? Unscientific sentiments aside, there is little doubt that if the technology to produce Novichok agents ever existed, the West knows about it and, thus, can use it.
And here we come to the question of the identification of Novichok as the culprit and the origin of this particular sample. The general story disseminated by the Western media is that chemical analysis can identify not only the poison but also the place of origin of that poison. Supposedly, such analysis was used to pin the Novichok poison on Russia. To use Boris Johnson’s terms, this is “overwhelmingly unlikely”. Yes, it is true that chemical analysis can identify a compound of known structure by name. If the physico-chemical characteristics of Novichok or, rather, several of Novichok compounds, are available to the British investigators, there is no doubt they could identify it. Generally speaking, the origin of a particular sample of the agent can also be identified by contaminants, for no chemical compound is 100% pure. If the synthesis technology had been developed de novo in the West based on available structure and/or recollections and lab notes of the Russian scientists, the contaminants would differ from the original. Furthermore, even when the same technology is used, every time a chemical reaction goes slightly differently resulting in a unique composition of the batch, or the footprint (the main product plus miniscule impurities). If chemists have a sample of the compound used and comparison samples, the match could be made with certainty. Uglev recalls that every batch of every compound produced in the lab was accompanied with the detailed physico-chemical “passport” that identified it.
There is a multitude of problems with the Skripals’ story as it is being told. First, when one finds two people collapsed on a bench in a park, Novichok is not the first thing that normally comes to mind. Therefore, the investigators need to identify an unknown poison, which is not an easy task. The symptoms of the victims could have suggested that a nerve agent was employed as opposed to other types of poison. However, if there is no information on that particular poison in the database, it takes time to work out the structure of the compound. But even when you do work it out, how do you know it is Novichok if you, presumably, know nothing about the agent? If the information about the poison was available enabling a speedy identification of the agent used, it can only mean one thing: someone in the West produced the agent, studied it and deposited its characteristics into the database. This also means that some entity in the West is or might be in the possession of the poison, and the whole argument “nobody but Russia” goes out of the window. It appears the British have successfully put themselves in the “catch-22” situation.
The ability of the British investigators to establish the origin of the compound beyond “highly likely” is doubtful. The British never recovered the agent used in the poisoning of the Skripals, which means there is nothing to analyze but the victims’ vital fluids. Figuring out the composition of the original sample down to minuscule impurities based exclusively on the analysis of the victim’s blood is problematic. As to the comparison sample, the American or British intelligence could have easily gotten their hands on the poisonous compound in the Soviet or Russian labs. The more likely this scenario is, the more it destroys the premise the British operate upon that Russia is in the unique position to produce and use the Novichok poison. If they never acquired the Russian samples, then no comparison and, consequently, identification is possible. Vladimir Uglev in his interview to the Guardian, when asked what were the chances that “British investigators might be able to tie the novichok to a specific country or lab”, said “probably close to zero”. He is sure right about that – for more reasons than one.
Interestingly, if Uglev and Mirzayanov agreed on anything, that would be the high toxicity of the Novichok compounds. Uglev said if the Skripals were poisoned with any of the 4 substances developed by his group, their chances of survival would be zero. The fact that no one died following “the use of a chemical weapon”, “a military grade nerve agent”, “a cold-blooded chemical attack”, et cetera, et cetera, is hard to explain, and so far the British for the most part have avoided giving explanations. Moreover, Yulia Skripal seems to be rapidly improving, regained conscience and is talking, and as far as we know, no member of the public has been harmed. This is inconsistent with what has been reported about Novichok properties. Not only is it supposed to be highly poisonous, the common antidotes for nerve agents do not seem to be efficacious against it, and, given its chemical nature, the newer therapy approaches based on reactivation of acetylcholinesterase (the critical enzyme the nerve agents inhibit) are unlikely to work. One explanation I have seen in the Western press is that the assassin “messed up”. Well, two naïve Asian girls who did not know what they were doing succeeded in assassinating Kim Jon Num with VX, whereas an assassination supposedly ordered by Putin himself was “messed up”. You be the judge of how highly likely that is.
There is much more that could be said about this affair. However, such discussion only makes sense if we believe that the British acted in good faith, and a genuine investigation is taking place. I am not so sure about that. Based on the action of the UK government, I am inclined to think that they know exactly what happened for the simple reason that they made it happen, and the rest is just a smokescreen.
- https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/mar/16/russian-spy-poisoning-attack-novichok-chemist ↑
- http://www.mdpi.com/2072-6651/6/6/1761 ↑
- https://www.bbc.com/russian/features-43429973 ↑
- https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/mar/23/nerve-agent-was-used-in-1995-claims-former-soviet-scientist ↑
- http://abcnews.go.com/International/novichok-agents-chemical-weapon-russian-spys-poisoning/story?id=53692050 ↑
- https://www.nbcnews.com/news/north-korea/u-s-sanctions-north-korea-over-vx-assassination-kim-jong-n854366 ↑