Once-secret U.S. government documents show that Western powers have quietly worried for more than a decade about the mysterious and deadly nerve agent Novichok, which British investigators now believe was used in the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy living in Great Britain.
British investigators and Prime Minister Theresa May believe ex-Russian spy Sergei V. Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in the city of Salisbury earlier this month with the nerve agent. The substance is made only in Russia, and the British — backed by the European Union and the United States — say Russia is responsible for the attack.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mockingly dismissed those accusations as “nonsense.” Russia has never openly confirmed the existence of Novichok, which was revealed to the world in the mid-1990s by two former Soviet scientists who acknowledged they helped create it. Lavrov’s office said Sunday on Twitter that the nation’s chemical weapons stocks all had been destroyed.
Documents found in the massive trove of leaked State Department cables published in November 2010 by the self-described transparency organization Wikileaks underscore that Russia’s possession of Novichok has been an ongoing fear.
Since the mid-1980’s, a number of likeminded nations, now more than 40, have met annually for informal private discussions about preventing the spread of chemical and biological weapons through export licenses and other forms of control.
These meetings came to be known as the Australia Group, and members are parties to global conventions on chemical and biological weapons. Several former Soviet-bloc countries joined after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Russia refrained.
Two secret State Department documents, one sent to the CIA and five agencies, were found among the more than 250,000 cables published in 2010 by Wikileaks. These two documents summarized the information shared by the Australia Group participants, including concerns about Novichok, which in English translates to “newbie” or “newcomer” from Russian.
A State Department document dated June 20, 2006 — labeled “SECRET” and sent to unknown recipients — followed a meeting of the group in Paris days earlier and indicated that the Canadian delegation was concerned about Russia. Canada noted that Russian President Boris Yeltsin confirmed in 1992 his nation had a biological weapons program and would halt it.
“Since that time, Russia has repeatedly denied ever having an offensive weapons program,” the summary of the Canadian response said, pointing to reports that first emerged about Novichok in the mid-1990s from two former Soviet scientists who helped develop incarnations of the nerve agent.
The Canadian went on to complain that “Russia has failed to acknowledge public statements made by former Russian CW (chemical weapons) researchers on Novichok, CW agents.”
At the same meetings, the British delegation, in concerns that now seem prophetic, said that Russia retained an offense-minded chemical weapons program.
“The UK thinks that Russia may have a CW mobilization capability and stores precursor chemicals. The UK believes that Russia’s export control enforcement is feckless,” said the summary, adding that “Russia’s BW (biological weapons) program was the largest in history, involving thousands of scientists, so the potential for proliferation is enormous.”
Less than four months later, former Russian spy and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko fell ill on Nov. 1, 2006, in London, in what became the first known poisoning with radioactive polonium 210. Litvinenko died on Nov. 23 of acute radiation poisoning and Great Britain blamed Russia.
Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who became a double agent working for the British, appears to have been the latest victim of Russia’s retribution. Skripal had been arrested by Russian authorities in 2004 and convicted of high treason, but was freed in a spy swap and had been living in Great Britain since 2010. His daughter was visiting from Moscow.
The poisoning of the Skripals, found slumped in a zombie-like state on a British park bench, underscores how little is known about variants of Novichok, which is actually a class of nerve agents that its developers claim are the deadliest ever made.
“We know some about them, but we haven’t seen the operational employment of these things until now,” said Daniel M. Gerstein, a former senior official in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security who after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks helped develop a bio-surveillance system for the Defense Department. “They have not received as much notoriety.”
One of the Novichok developers, Vladimir Uglev, said in a lengthy interview published Wednesday that in 1995, a Russian banker named Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary were fatally poisoned with the nerve agent, apparently spread on his phone receiver with a cotton swab. A deputy director of Rosbiznesbank was convicted for their deaths but the nerve agent was never formally identified. The interview with the long-retired Uglev, who still lives in Russia, appeared on an investigative news site, The Bell, run by the former editor-in-chief of Forbes' Russian-language editions.
But Novichok hasn’t captured public attention in the way that nerve agents VX and sarin have. VX is an odorless and oily liquid that is persistent, evaporating slowly, and is thought to have been used in the February 2017 assassination in Malaysia of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam.
Sarin is a nerve gas developed first in Nazi Germany, then later by NATO as a standard chemical weapon. It was banned globally in 1993 but is believed to have been used by Syrian armed forces in the nation’s long-running civil war.
Novichok came up again in April 2008, when the UK again, before the Australia Group, warned about Russia and the little-known nerve agent. The British delegation complained of incomplete and inaccurate chemical weapons declarations by Russia.
“Particularly, the UK noted press reports from former officials of the Soviet Union allegation that the Soviet Union had developed novichok (sic) agents. The UK believes that research with dual-use implications continues,” said the meeting summary, sent on April 17, 2008, by the State Department’s intelligence bureau to the CIA.
The same secret document cited French concerns that Russia may be revisiting a World War II-era effort to produce a virus that could be used to assassinate persons via induced encephalomyelitis. The virus provokes an autoimmune disorder that creates inflammation of the brain and spinal cord similar to multiple sclerosis, and is sometimes called stiff-person syndrome.
Former high-level U.S. officials acknowledge that nerve agents such as Novichok that could be used for assassination were on the radar and of grave concern, but after Sept. 11 took a backseat to worries about VX and sarin that posed greater threats to big U.S. cities like New York, Miami or Dallas-Fort Worth.
“The biggest concern was nerve agents that would be distributed widely…and very easily weaponized,” said Wayne White, a former deputy director of the State Department’s intelligence office for the Middle East. Israel was particularly concerned about rockets from hostile neighbors with warheads that could have been laced with nerve agents; such a weapon would instantly render an airfield and aircraft instantly uninhabitable for long periods of time, he said.
If the Skripals were in fact poisoned with Novichok from Russia it means that either an agent of the Russian government carried out a brazen attack on British soil, or that Russia has lost control of its stockpiles. That second possibility poses a much wider threat to anyone considered hostile to whomever possesses the deadly nerve agent.
“If this was a proliferation issue, it is worse than if it was used by” someone working for Russia, said Gerstein, now a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation. “That means someone else can have access to it.”
Following the Skripals’ poisoning, British Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced last week that investigations into 14 deaths of Russians in the UK since the early 2000s would be reopened. A report last year by online news site BuzzFeed said that U.S. intelligence believed the mysterious deaths were actually assassinations.
“Unless you are looking for it you may not have seen it … there have been a lot of unexplained Russians that have died fairly young,” observed Gerstein, cautioning he has no evidence one way or another.
Meanwhile, state-supported media outlets in Russia have unleashed blistering attacks on British and European leaders this week challenging the suggestion that the Skripals were poisoned by Novichok.
“Skripal Case ‘Fantastic Way to Distract British Public From Brexit’ – Author,” screamed the headline on Sputnik, the Kremlin-sponsored news site, quoting an obscure “digital-media expert” to suggest that May was inventing a crisis to delay British withdrawal from the European Union.
It isn’t immediately obvious to a reader that the story is actually an opinion piece. The author is Rob Abdul, whose books are mostly poetry collections in anthologies and a collection of his own poems.
On his e-commerce website, Abdul describes himself as “your Jerry Maguire on steroids for the Internet” — a reference to the sports agent played by actor Tom Cruise in a 1996 movie. Abdul’s website promises to improve a company’s social-media profile and boost its search-engine placement.
It’s unclear how Abdul rose to the level of international commentator on British politics for Sputnik.
The White House imposed new sanctions on 24 Russian entities and individuals on March 15 for their alleged interference in the 2016 elections. But Tuesday, President Donald Trump spoke by phone with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and made no mention of the poisonings in Great Britain, according to a White House statement.
"President Trump congratulated President Putin on his March 18 re-election, and emphasized the importance of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. The two leaders confirmed the need for the United States and Russia to continue our shared efforts on strategic stability," said the statement.
The Skripals remain in a British hospital in stable but critical condition, Britain’s The Guardian reported Tuesday. British authorities on Monday seized a car used to retrieve Yulia Skripal from the airport on March 3, a day before she and her father were found ill.