On March 4, in a quaint cathedral town named Salisbury, not far from Stonehenge, an assassination was attempted.
The target was Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who settled in Salisbury after a spy swap in 2010. In 2006, a Russian court had convicted Skripal of high treason for purportedly passing secrets, including the identities of Russian spies, to the British.
On March 4, Skripal stopped at a cemetery with his daughter Yulia, visiting from Russia. The pair then spent time in a Salisbury pub and at a restaurant. At 4:15 PM, they were found catatonic on an outdoor bench.
The nearby Defense Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down—likely using gas chromatograph–mass spectrometry analysis of biomedical samples taken from the Skripals—pinpointed the poison that felled them. As Prime Minister Theresa May announced to the House of Commons on March 12, it was a novichok (or “newcomer”) nerve agent. From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, the Soviet Union and Russia created, tested, and produced a family of these fourth-generation nerve agents. May stated that Russia was either behind the Skripal attack or had lost control of its warfare agent. She gave Russia 24 hours to agree that it would make a full and complete declaration about the novichok program to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (the inspection agency for the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention).
Russia denied responsibility, so London expelled 23 Russian diplomats. Moscow responded by expelling 23 British diplomats. Amid all this, in true Soviet style, Vladimir Putin was “re-elected” president of Russia.
In Salisbury, British authorities have gathered more than 760 pieces of evidence, interviewed hundreds of witnesses, and scoured 4,000 hours of closed-circuit television footage. Though forensic details have not been released to the public, headlines have blared theories that Russian spies contaminated items in Yulia Skripal’s suitcase—such as the fake flowers that the pair reportedly placed on a family gravesite—with a novichok agent; that their drinks were spiked; or that the novichok agent was rubbed on a door handle or introduced into the ventilation system of Sergei Skripal’s BMW.
The situation caused flashbacks to an earlier assassination of a Russian spy on British soil. On November 1, 2006, Andrei Lugovoi—a former KGB agent and Kremlin bodyguard—slipped polonium-210 into the tea of Alexander Litvinenko because the latter man had accused the Kremlin of ordering assassinations, participating in drug trafficking, and more. Litvinenko died a few weeks later. David Cameron, then the British prime minister, called Litvinenko’s assassination a “state-sponsored murder.” In 2016, an inquiry concluded that Putin had “probably” authorized it.
When the Skripals were attacked, British officials instantly suspected Moscow. Russia had a motive; the Litvinenko killing had set a precedent; and all novichok roads lead back to Russia.
Highly lethal, not so hidden. The world might still be in the dark about the novichok program were it not for the conscience and courage of Dr. Vil Mirzayanov, who spent 26 years at the State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology. In an October 1991 Kuranty article and a September 1992 piece co-authored with Lev Fyodorov and published in The Moscow News, Mirzayanov reported that Russia was still making poison gas. Mikhail Gorbachev was on record claiming the opposite. Russia certainly wanted to shut Mirzayanov up—he was arrested in September 1992 on treason charges.
I first crossed paths with the soft-spoken Mirzayanov in 1995—and an afternoon with him clarified a great deal for me. (Earlier, I had met Fyodorov, but it was clear that he had no first-hand knowledge of the novichok program.) From the mid-1960s until January 1992, Mirzayanov participated in the Soviet Union’s effort to match the US Bigeye binary program. A binary weapon safely stores two non-lethal chemicals separately and mixes them at the last minute to generate poison gas (in the case of the Bigeye bomb, VX). First, Mirzayanov introduced new chemical analytical methods; he monitored novichok weapon tests, including their environmental effects. Eventually, Mirzayanov rose to be chief of counterintelligence for the institute. Thus, as a scientist himself, Mirzayanov knew the technical details of the novichok program—plus, he had worked directly with the program’s principal scientists and managers. As a whistleblower on a covert weapons program, Mirzayanov was Moscow’s worst nightmare.
Despite Gorbachev’s splashy campaigns involving glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), that afternoon Mirzayanov explained how he knew that Moscow was lying—that it continued to develop and manufacture chemical weapons into the early 1990s. Bolstered by the spirit of the democracy movement, yet admittedly naïve about politics, Mirzayanov did not anticipate the full consequences of his decision to unmask the novichok program. He lost his job, his family disintegrated, and ultimately he lost his country. Yet Mirzayanov had the wit and fortitude to outmaneuver the Russian government as it threw him into two infamous prisons (Lefortovo and Matrosskaya Tishina) and subjected him to a classic Soviet show trial. Mirzayanov had the presence of mind to copy by hand the top-secret documents that the prosecutors would use against him; and he had the insider’s knowledge to explain how his public statements did not disclose state secrets. In March 1994, the prosecutor closed the case, and in June of that year a court awarded Mirzayanov 33 million rubles in damages.
A true hero sat before me in the Stimson Center’s Dupont Circle conference room, and the least I could do was help Mirzayanov tell his story more clearly. He agreed to write an essay that appeared in a 1995 Stimson Center report. Mirzayanov, to enable the international community to hold the Russian government accountable under the Chemical Weapons Convention, described the status of three novichok precursors and three novichok agents. He detailed the locations used for research, testing, and production. He identified the chief scientists. Among Mirzayanov’s revelations were these:
- In 1989 and 1990, the Red Army approved three novichok agents as weapons of war
- The Soviet Union produced tens of tons of three agents in the novichok family and a few tons of two others
- In 1991, Gorbachev gave the Soviet Union’s highest honor, the Lenin Prize, to a trio of senior officers at the institute where Mirzayanov had worked because of the success of the novichok program
- The Soviets designed the program to be buried in the agrochemical industry. Scientists found acceptable commercial uses—such as pesticides and fertilizers—for novichok’s organophosphorus chemicals
Russia joined the convention on November 5, 1997 but refused to concede the existence of, much less declare, the novichok program, claiming that the Soviet Union had engaged in research but did not cross into development and production. Regrettably, the international community accepted Moscow’s position. Frustrated, Mirzayanov in 2008 published a 600-page tome, State Secrets, which included some novichok chemical formulas.
The big lie (again). The Skripals remain in the hospital, critically ill. Meanwhile, Russian hypocrisy about the novichok program has reached new heights. Alexander Shulgin, Russia’s representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, conceded several days ago that the Soviet Union “began [research] to produce a new generation of poisonous substances” but denied the existence of a program code-named novichok. Instead, Shulgin said, foreign “special services took a group of Russian scientists” abroad in the early 1990s so they could continue their work—which, “for some reason,” they called novichok. Specifically, he blamed the whistleblower Mirzayanov, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova took the party line even further, stating that the novichok program did not originate in “Russia or the Soviet Union” but that Western countries had engaged in “intense research on the substances from the ‘novichok’ program” since the 1990s. She also attempted to incriminate the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Sweden. Russia’s ploy is right out of the playbook of Adolf Hitler and his propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels—concocting a big enough lie and telling it repeatedly.
An opportunity. The convention’s “general purpose criterion,” as described in Article II, proscribes the battlefield use of any toxic chemical. The Skripal case presents a stellar opportunity to add the novichok agents to the convention’s Schedule 1 list of prohibited poison gases, and to add all the novichok precursors to the treaty’s other schedules, so that the treaty’s members are required to declare their production. These steps would enable inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to monitor the manufacture of novichok precursors and safeguard against mothballed or break-out novichok programs. Lest the international community be tempted to squander this opportunity, it should be remembered that novichok 7 is 10 times more lethal than the nerve agent soman. Novichok 5 is five to eight times more effective than the nerve agent VX.
France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States have jointly called on Russia to account for the attack on the Skripals. The European Union has asked Russia to fully and completely declare the novichok program to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. But US President Donald Trump declined to take Putin personally to task for the Skripal attack during a March 20 phone call. This major misstep will only embolden Russia to persist in its big lie. US leadership is critical for mustering international political will to trigger the convention’s provisions for challenge inspections.
Russia’s declaration to the convention has long been false and incomplete. Moscow must declare the novichok program or face inspections—any time, anywhere, and on short notice. Thanks to Mirzayanov, the inspectors know exactly where to look.