The Kremlin has said it is “deeply concerned” by the poisoning of a British couple with the nerve agent novichok but has claimed Russia had nothing to do with it.
It was the highest-level response yet to Wednesday’s poisoning, which Russian officials said on social media would be “dumb” for Moscow to have carried during the World Cup.
Vladimir Putin’s personal spokesman categorically denied that Russia was behind the use of the nerve agent in Wiltshire and also complained that Russia had not been given information about what substances were used.
What is novichok?
Novichok refers to a group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s 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.
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.
While the novichok agents work in a similar way, by massively over-stimulating muscles and glands, one chemical weapons expert said the agents did not degrade fast in the environment and had ‘an additional toxicity that was not well understood. 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 they can be made in different forms, including as a dust aerosol.
The novichoks are known as binary agents because they only become lethal after mixing two otherwise harmless components. According to Mirzayanov, they are 10 to 100 times more toxic than conventional nerve agents.
While laboratories 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.
“Of course we’re concerned that these substances have been used repeatedly in Europe,” Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday. “However, on the other hand, we have no information about which substances were used or how they were used.”
He also said that no convincing evidence of Russia’s complicity in the March attack against the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, had been presented by the UK.
Asked about remarks by the British security minister, Ben Wallace, who called on Moscow to give details about the original novichok attack, Peskov said: “To my shame I don’t know who Ben Wallace is. [But] the minister knows very well that Russia proposed a joint investigation long ago and that this proposal was on the agenda. It was made long ago and unfortunately the British side is not showing any interest in such proposals.”
It follows remarks by a senior Russian politician that the state’s law enforcement bodies should participate in the UK investigation.
“There is a need for thorough and professional work, and the efforts of British security services will not be enough. Russia should be involved, among others,” said Vladimir Shamanov, who chairs the defence committee of the state Duma.
Dawn Sturgess, 44, and Charlie Rowley, 45, collapsed in Amesbury on Wednesday in an incident that has been attributed to the use of the nerve agent originally developed by the Russian military.
Many Russian officials have previously denied that Russia developed novichok, or that the state used it in the attack on the Skripals in nearby Salisbury March.
The latest incident comes at a particularly sensitive moment. Russia is hosting tens of thousands of foreigners during the World Cup and its national team could face England in the semi-finals next week if both teams win their next matches. Russian media and officials have suggested that the Skripal attack was a provocation to take the football tournament away from Russia. As a result of the Salisbury poisonings, British ministers and members of the royal family have not attended the World Cup.
A post on a Twitter account used by the Russian embassy in the Netherlands said on Thursday:
Russian Embassy in NL🇷🇺🇳🇱(@rusembassynl)
How dumb they think 🇷🇺 is to use “again” so-called “Novichok” in the middle of the FIFA World Cup and after the special session of the CSP (convened by the way by 🇬🇧) that gave the #OPCW attribution functions. The show must go on? pic.twitter.com/a9FdJceWIv
July 5, 2018
Last month, the UK and its allies won a vote to give the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons the power to attribute blame for the use of chemical weapons and not just confirm their use. Russia opposed the decision at the Conference of the States Parties.
British law enforcement has suggested that the latest poisonings were probably caused by the nerve agent used in the original attack, and that the Amesbury couple were not targeted specifically.
Reuters contributed to this report