Russian spy poisoning: chemist says non-state actor couldn’t carry out attack
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The Russian chemist who revealed the existence of the novichok family of chemical agents to the world has dismissed the notion that a non-state actor could be behind the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, earlier this month.
Timeline: the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal
Police have confirmed that Skripal and his daughter were in Salisbury city centre by 1.30pm. It is not known if they walked from his home or whether they drove or were driven in.
Skripal and his daughter strolled around Salisbury and visited the Zizzi restaurant on Castle Street and the nearby Mill pub. They are believed to have been in Zizzi for about 40 minutes from 2.30pm.
A CCTV camera at Snap Fitness in Market Walk captured two people initially thought to be Skripal and his daughter. The woman appeared to be carrying a red handbag. Later it became clear the pair were probably not the Russian and his daughter. Police have been keen to speak to the couple.
The same camera caught personal trainer Freya Church. She turned left out of the gym and in front of her saw Skripal and the woman on a bench at the Maltings shopping centre. She said the woman had passed out and the man was behaving strangely. Church walked on.
Footage that emerged on Friday from a local business showed that people were still strolling casually through Market Walk.
A member of the public dialled 999. The Friday footage shows an emergency vehicle racing through the pedestrianised arcade shortly after 4.15pm. A paramedic also ran through. Police and paramedics worked on the couple at the scene for almost an hour in ordinary uniforms.
The woman was airlifted to hospital; Skripal was taken by road.
Images taken by a passerby show that officers were still clearly unaware of the severity of the situation. They did not have specialist protective clothing and members of the public also strolled nearby.
Police told Salisbury Journal they were investigating a possible drug-related incident. At about this time officers identified Skripal and his daughter and by Sunday evening they were at his home – in normal uniform or street clothes. At some point DS Nick Bailey, now seriously ill in hospital, visited the Skripal house, but it is not known where he was contaminated.
Officers donned protective suits to examine the bench and surrounding areas.
Officers were hosing themselves down. It was not until the next day that a major incident was declared.
Vil Mirzayanov, 83, said the chemical was too dangerous for anyone but a “high-level senior scientist” to handle and that even he – who worked for 30 years inside the secret military installation where novichok was developed and gained extensive personal experience in handling the agent – would not know how to weaponize it.
He said he did not see how a criminal organization or other non-state group could pull off such an attack.
“It’s very, very tough stuff,” Mirzayanov told the Guardian at his home in New Jersey, where he has lived in exile since 1996. “I don’t believe it.
“You need a very high-qualified professional scientist,” he continued. “Because it is dangerous stuff. Extremely dangerous. You can kill yourself. First of all you have to have a very good shield, a very particular container. And after that to weaponize it – weaponize it is impossible without high technical equipment. It’s impossible to imagine.”
The British government has announced sanctions against Moscow over the poisoning of Skripal, and the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said on Friday it was “overwhelmingly likely” that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, personally took the decision to use the nerve agent against the ex-spy.
But the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said on Wednesday that the chemical agent identified in the Salisbury attack could have been used by someone else other than the Russian state, and a Corbyn spokesperson suggested a “mafia-like group” or “oligarchic interests in London” might have been responsible.
Mirzayanov said those theories did not make sense owing to the facilities and multiple layers of expertise that would be required to prepare such an attack.
Chemists synthesizing the agent would have to be working somewhere with an antidote close at hand, he said, and they would have to be working with someone who knew how to weaponize it, which, he emphasized, he himself did not.
“We had no idea how to weaponize it,” he said. “We don’t know because it’s not our business.”
Weaponization would also need to take place at a different facility from the one where the agent was made, he said.
Mirzayanov said the perpetrator of the attack must have been the Russian state.
“No one country has these capabilities like Russia, because Russia invented, tested and weaponized novichok,” he said.
The theory that the agent was stolen for use in a crime was weak for similar reasons, Mirzayanov said.
“If you steal it, and after that, what to do with that?” he said. “You cannot weaponize, no exceptions, you cannot weaponize that.”
Mirzayanov further said that there was probably no current stockpile of novichok to steal, because it has a limited shelf life and the preferred form would be a binary version in which two relatively benign, non-banned substances were mixed to produce novichok.
“The final product, in storage, after one year is already losing 2%, 3%. The next year more, and the next year more. In 10-15 years, it’s no longer effective.”
Mirzayanov worked inside the secret military installation where novichok was developed; his job was testing the surrounding air and soil for traces of novichok.
When he realized that Moscow’s military was lying about the possible applications of novichok and that the program risked undermining global chemical weapons bans, he said, he decided to expose it, publishing his first account in the Russian press in 1991.
He was arrested in 1994 and charged with divulging state secrets. Intervention by the US government, the Soros foundation and activists including his wife Gale, an American, secured his asylum in the United States.
Mirzayanov thinks the Salisbury attack was performed with a binary version of the agent brought through customs and automatically mixed at the time of the attack.
How hard is it to make a nerve agent?
Nerve agents are not hard to make in principle, but in practice it takes specialised facilities and training to mix the substances safely. The raw materials themselves are inexpensive and generally not hard to obtain, but the lethality of the agents means they tend to be manufactured in dedicated labs. The main five nerve agents are tabun, which is the easiest to make, sarin, soman, GF and VX. The latter was used to kill Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, at Kuala Lumpur airport last year. VX is particularly stable and can remain on clothing, furniture and the ground for a long time without proper decontamination.
All pure nerve agents are colourless organophosphorus liquids which, after they were discovered to be highly poisonous in the 1930s, became the dominant chemical weapons of the second world war. Once made, the substances are easy to disperse, highly toxic, and have rapid effects. Most are absorbed swiftly through the skin or inhaled, but they can also be added to food and drink.
The agents take their toll on the body by disrupting electrical signals throughout the nervous system and the effects are fast and dramatic. Victims find it increasingly hard to breathe. Their lungs produce more mucus which can make them cough and foam at the mouth. They sweat, their pupils constrict, and their eyes run. The effects on the digestive system trigger vomiting. Meanwhile the muscles convulse. Many of those affected will wet themselves and lose control of their bowels. At high doses, failure of the nerves and muscles of the respiratory system can kill before other symptoms have time to develop. There are antidotes for nerve agents, such as oxime and atropine, which are particularly effective against VX and sarin, but they should be given soon after exposure to be effective.
“I believe they brought binary version,” Mirzayanov said. “It’s two ampules, small containers, like a big bullet, 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.”
Mirzayanov said the danger for people in the area of the attack before or afterward would depend on the dosage used. “It’s extremely poisonous, about 10 times more potent than VX gas,” he said. “It could touch any skin and in a couple minutes would take effect.”
The first sign of exposure is a shrinkage of pupils and darkening of vision, he said. “After that vomiting, [difficulty] breathing and convulsions.”
An antidote can delay or partially reverse the effects of the poison but would not necessarily save the life of the victim, he said.
Mirzayanov said he did not feel fear for himself or his family in speaking about novichok and Russia.
“It may be a little bit crazy, but when I decide something, I’m going exactly to do it, without any distraction, to some goal,” he said. “I’m a very determined person. Because of that, if I’ve decided, all of it is gone, any fear – I don’t feel any fear.”