A Soviet chemical weapons specialist who helped develop Novichok-type nerve agents in the Soviet Union cast doubt on Russia’s alleged involvement in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, an ex-British-Russian double intelligence agent, in Salisbury, England, on March 4.
“It’s hard to believe that the Russians were involved, given that all of those caught up in the incident are still alive. Such outrageous incompetence by the alleged [Russian] spies would have simply been laughable and unacceptable,” said Leonid Rink, adding that Russia did not have any motive and would not want a scandal ahead of the presidential election and the 2018 World Cup Russia starting in June.
But he also claimed that any country with a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) infrastructure or “at least some chemistry” could have developed the agent that poisoned Skripal. Vil Mirzayanov, accused by Russia of treason for divulging state secrets regarding the Soviet Union’s program to develop Novichok-type agents, admitting such a possibility in his recent interview with Voice of America.
“The British could easily have synthesized it on the basis of the formulas that I published in my book, published in 2008 (State Secrets: An Insider’s Chronicle of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program Secrets). Each country takes care of its own security, and as part of the study of possible threats, a model could have been created,” Mirzayanov stated.
Rink, among other observers, also points to Britain’s refusal to share the nerve agent sample with Russia for examination as a sign of Britain’s possible complicity in the poisoning of Skripal.
“Why aren’t the British providing the sample to Moscow? Because no matter how hard [British] specialists try, a technology will always differ somewhat. This is its unique signature. It will be immediately clear that it is not a Russian-made technology,” Rink maintains.
According to Alastair Hay, professor of environmental toxicology at University of Leeds in Britain, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans chemical weapons, allows London to confirm its findings through the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). This is exactly the route Britain has taken. The OPCW is expected to complete its examination within the next two weeks.
“None of their findings can be accused of bias,” Hay said of the OPCW, an international disarmament body which has Russia, Britain, and numerous other countries, as members.
Jean Pascal Zanders, an independent researcher and consultant at The Trench, a consultancy on disarmament issues, told Polygraph.info that satisfying Russia’s request before the OPCW has completed its independent analysis of the British samples could allow it to question the British allegation of Russia’s “highly likely” involvement in the poisoning of Skripal.
“Any release of its findings before then to anybody would give Russia grounds to question the validity of the research (as it has done and does with OPCW reports confirming CW use in Syria) done by the UK and eventually the OPCW reference laboratories,” Zanders said.
Russian experts have also questioned how Britain was able to identify the nerve agent without having a stockpile of the same weapons. The implication is that Britain could have developed its own sample or acquired one from other parties, including chemical scientists whom Moscow reportedly allowed to emigrate after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Or, it could have compared the agent used in the attack against formulas revealed in Mirzayanov’s book.
However, Vladimir Uglev, who also participated in the Soviet chemical weapons development program, questioned Britain’s ability to develop the same agent by comparing the formulas in Mirzayanov’s book.
“One can engage in screening an additional couple of years based on the formulas in this book. But his book has no specific compounds and precursors,” Uglev says.
Hay, in turn, points to disagreements about the chemical structures in the book but acknowledges that the formulas could allow “good synthetic chemists” to make “something similar.” He also explains that chemists use different methods to identify chemical structures.
Another expert says no previous sample is necessary to compare to and identify the agent in question. “…if one knows the chemical composition (as Mirzayanov published in his book) it is possible to identify [the agent in question],” explains Cindy Vestergaard, a Nuclear Safeguards Program director at Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
So the bottom line on Rink’s claim is this key question: was it possible or likely that Britain developed a stock of the same type as the Soviet’s original Novichok nerve agent? On that key queston, from publicly available information, it is impossible to tell.
According to the Arms Control Association, eight countries declared chemical weapons stockpiles when they signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC): Albania, India, Iraq, Libya, Syria, the U.S., Russia, and “an anonymous state widely believed to be South Korea.” Albania, South Korea, India, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Russia have since completed destruction of their declared stockpiles. The U.S. plans to complete the task by 2023. The OPCW verifies claims of destruction but a key point in this instance is that the Soviet Union and now Russia have never declared Novichok, despite public evidence now that the weapon was developed on Russian soil.
As a treaty, the CWC bans chemical weapons. But the OPCW public affairs office told Polygraph.info that the Convention allows for the use of the toxic materials and their precursors for “peaceful” or “protective” purposes.
According to Hay, Britain today possess only a small quantity of chemical weapons allowed under the CWC, having disposed of the chemical weapons in munition in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
“It is possible very small quantities of Novichok type chemicals were developed simply for analytical purposes in the UK. But I do not know if this happened. It would help to be able to include the structures of these compounds (after small quantities were made) into a chemical database so that in the event of an attack, like the one in Salisbury, the agent could be identified. There would be no other reason for the UK to possess these chemicals,” Hay adds.
Vestergaard concurs, saying the Britain could have the means to produce such a nerve agent but wouldn’t need to. “In 1956, the UK ended its offensive chemical weapons program. Since then, the UK’s programme has been a defensive program (for protective purposes only),” she says.