Moscow’s explanations for the Salisbury nerve agent attack last month have been irreverent and numerous; Russian officials appear to have hurled alternative versions of events at the wall just to see what sticks.
Russian polemics at the UN security council have alluded to Alice in Wonderland and the TV series Midsomer Murders, suggesting that Sweden synthesised the poison or that it was a “false flag” attack by British authorities, among more than a dozen other theories.
By Thursday night, Russia’s embassy to the UK was zeroing in on what happened to Sergei Skripal’s pets – two cats and two guinea pigs, according to his niece – in its latest Twitter allegations of a cover-up.
“Was there even a poisoning at all?” asked Aleksey Pushkov, a Russian politician and one of the country’s many outspoken hawks competing for attention. “In 2003, PM Tony Blair lied to the whole world about the danger of an Iraqi chemical attack. Is it a relapse?”
British diplomats, who have made their own missteps in promoting their version of events, have complained about Russia’s blase attitude toward the allegations that Moscow was behind the first military-grade nerve agent attack in Europe since the second world war.
But Moscow’s madcap defence of unlikely alternatives has characterised its diplomatic wrangling over years of conflict with the west, starting long before the Skripal poisoning.
The appearance of unidentified Russian soldiers in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 was explained away as locals wearing uniforms they bought at a store. The Malaysian jetliner MH17, which was downed by a Buk missile brought in from Russia, according to Dutch-led investigators, had been shadowed by a phantom Ukrainian fighter jet seen only by a fake air traffic controller. And the hacking of the US Democratic National Committee in 2016 may have been done by Russians, as the US claimed, but they were just unaffiliated patriots who follow their whims like artists.
What is novichok?
Novichok refers to a group of nerve agents that were developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s to elude international restrictions on chemical weapons. Like other nerve agents, they are organophosphate compounds, but the chemicals used to make them, and their final structures are considered classified in the UK, the US and other countries. By making the agents in secret, from unfamiliar chemicals, the Soviet Union aimed to manufacture the substances without being impeded.
“Much less is known about the novichoks than the other nerve agents,” said Alastair Hay, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Leeds who investigated the use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in Halabja in 1988. “They are not widely used at all.”
The most potent of the novichok substances are considered to be more lethal than VX, the most deadly of the familiar nerve agents, which include sarin, tabun and soman.
And while the novichok agents work in a similar way, by massively over-stimulating muscles and glands, one chemical weapons expert told the Guardian that the agents do not degrade fast in the environment and have “an additional toxicity”. “That extra toxicity is not well understood, so I understand why people were asked to wash their clothes, even if it was present only in traces,” he said. Treatment for novichok exposure would be the same as for other nerve agents, namely with atropine, diazepam and potentially drugs called oximes.
The chemical structures of novichok agents were made public in 2008 by Vil Mirzayanov, a former Russian scientist living in the US, but the structures have never been publicly confirmed. It is thought that they can be made in different forms, including a dust aerosol that would be easy to disperse.
The novichoks are known as binary agents because they become lethal only after mixing two otherwise harmless components. According to Mirzayanov, they are 10 to 100 times more toxic than the conventional nerve agents.
The fact that so little is known about them may explain why Porton Down scientists took several days to identify the compound used in the attack against Sergei and Yulia Skripal. While laboratories around the world that are used to police chemical weapons incidents have databases of nerve agents, few outside Russia are believed to have full details of the novichok compounds and the chemicals needed to make them.
These three alternative versions of events were not voiced by isolated officials, but by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
Rather than shying away from the Skripal case, Russian public figures have put it front and centre, at times engaging in almost reckless controversy. On national television, presenters have insisted on bringing out Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, the two ex-KGB agents accused of the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium-210.
They appeared on the same show as Viktoria Skripal, the niece of Sergei Skripal. She later gave a recording of a conversation she said she held with Skripal’s daughter Yulia, claimed to be her first statements heard in public since the attack.
Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Centre, said that showing Russians the conflict with the west over the Skripal case could play in the government’s favour.
Public opinion was on the side of the government, he said – 72% of Russians have told the independent Levada Centre that they believe Russia was not responsible for the poisoning. As with MH17, Kolesnikov said, the majority of Russians would reject the suspicions against Moscow.
And the sense of being besieged, he said, may bolster patriotic feeling. “If you don’t have a second Crimea, you have to exploit unjust attacks from the west,” he said.