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Assessing the Novichok evidence in the Skripal case

OPCW confirms Novichok used to attack Skripals but does not say who made it

The long awaited report of the OPCW on the Skripal case has confirmed that a chemical agent of a type that the British authorities call a Novichok was used in the attack in Salisbury on Sergey and Yulia Skripal.

However the report does not say where this chemical was made, which as British ambassador Craig Murray correctly says is the key point at issue.

In effect the OPCW report therefore takes the Skripal case no further forward than the point it had reached following the admission by Porton Down’s chief executive Gary Aitkenhead that though Britain’s Porton Down scientists had identified the agent as a Novichok, they were unable to say where it was made.

At this point I think it might help if I clarify several points about the Novichok evidence as I understand it.

Firstly, there has been much discussion about Novichok agents and their properties, with many people doubting that a Novichok agent was used at all in the Skripal case given that Novichok agents are supposed to be eight times more powerful than the British agent VX notwithstanding which Sergey and Yulia Skripal are nonetheless supposed to have survived contact with one and were able to walk around Salisbury for several hours after they supposedly came into contact with it.

There have been suggestions that the whole thing is a gigantic fraud and that what struck Sergey and Yulia Skripal down was nothing more than a bad case of food poisoning caused by a sea food risotto which they eat for lunch in a restaurant.

It is important to understand however that saying that a Novichok agent was not used in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal is a conspiracy theory.

I say this because for this theory to be true it would require the British police  – a notoriously truculent and independent minded group of people who are currently on extremely bad terms with the current British government – the local NHS staff – who are likely to be mostly Labour Party supporters and many of whom are probably supporters of Jeremy Corbyn – and the scientists of Porton Down – whose refusal to point the finger at Russia has caused the British government much embarrassment – to collude with each other in order to pretend that Sergey and Yulia Skripal were poisoned with a Novichok when in fact they were poisoned by something else.

As I have said many times, simply because something is a conspiracy theory does not mean it is not true.  Actual conspiracies happen all the time and always have done.

However I would need to see a lot more evidence before I believed in this one, and frankly the OPCW’s confirmation that the agent used in the Skripal case was indeed a Novichok to my mind puts the whole question beyond doubt.

The fact that Sergey and Yulia Skripal survived their contact with the Novichok agent and appeared unaffected by it for many hours after they are supposed to have come into contact with it are not in my opinion reasons for doubting that they were poisoned by a Novichok.

Rather they are reasons for doubting that the agent they came into contact with is anywhere near as powerful as has been claimed.

Other possibilities are that the quantity of the Novichok agent they came into contact with was very small and/or that they did not come into contact with it in the way that the British authorities say they did ie. on the door knob of Sergey Skripal’s house.

The fact that a Novichok agent was used means that there has to be a very high probability that this was as the British authorities say a murder attempt.

Whilst it is possible to construct alternative theories frankly they don’t seem very likely, and until and unless alternative evidence which casts doubt on the murder attempt theory comes to light, I will stick with it.

The fact that a Novichok agent was used in what looks like a murder attempt does not however prove that the murder attempt was the work of the Russian authorities despite the attempt of the British authorities to argue otherwise.

This is because the linkage between Russia and Novichok agents does not appear to be anywhere near as strong as the British authorities claim that it is.

There has been much discussion about the precise status of the Novichok programme in the USSR in the 1970s and thereafter.

It seems that some early reporting confused what may have been a Novichok programme in the USSR – or perhaps more accurately a chemical weapons research programme which resulted in the development of certain agents which have come to be called “Novichoks” – with a quite different chemical weapons programme which was also underway in the USSR at this time, and which resulted in the development of a completely different set of chemical agents.

It seems that the chemical agent which was used in 1995 in the Kivelidi murder was apparently one of these other agents from this other programme, and was not in fact what is today called a “Novichok”.

The Russians themselves have given muddled information about these programmes, and their statements on this subject are far from clear, a fact which the British have exploited to their advantage.

However so far as I can understand it the Russian position is (1) that there was no ‘Novichok programme’ as such in the USSR or in Russia at any time; (2) that the name ‘Novichok’, though Russian, was first used in the West in order to describe a number of chemical agents which were either researched or were being developed during the Cold War simultaneously in a number of countries, and not just in the USSR (the Russians have mentioned the US, Britain, Sweden and Czechoslovakia – all countries with advanced chemical industries – amongst them); and (3) that neither the USSR nor Russia ever produced or stockpiled any of these Novichok agents in any quantity or made weapons from them, and that the work on Novichoks never went beyond a research programme.

I understand the Russians also to say that all their chemical weapons stockpiles have been fully accounted for and destroyed, and that the OPCW routinely monitors all their chemical laboratories including the laboratory in Shikhany in the Saratov Region where the British authorities have suggested that the Novichok agent which was used in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal might have been made.

I am obviously not in a position to say whether or not this Russian account – assuming I am reporting it properly – is true.

I would say that to my knowledge all sorts of strange and exotic weapons were researched in any number of laboratories both in the East and the West during the Cold War – research grants for that sort of thing were plentiful in those days – with only a tiny fraction of this research ever resulting in usable weapons.

In light of this background, the Russian account – if I have reproduced it correctly – does not look to me at all implausible.

What is indisputable – irrespective of whether the Russian account is true or not – is that knowledge of how to produce what are now called Novichok agents is today quite widespread, and is not just confined to Russia.

Moreover academic chemists have questioned claims that a Novichok agent of the type used in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal could only have been made by a state actor.

Accordingly – as Porton Down has admitted – it is not possible to say that a particular sample of chemical agent was made in Russia simply because it is of a Novichok type, and neither Porton Down and nor it seems the OPCW are able say that any particular sample of Novichok agent was made in Russia, and are not saying this in relation to the Novichok samples which have been tested during the Skripal case.

Moreover based on what some academic chemists are saying, there are good reasons to doubt that only a state actor can make a Novichok agent of the sort that was used in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal.

In summary, the Novichok evidence in the Skripal case is the same as the polonium evidence in the previous Litvinenko case.

In both cases use of a particular exotic material is said to implicate Russia.  In reality in both cases it does no such thing.  As it turns out the extent of the association of the material with Russia has been exaggerated.

Moreover it looks as if the toxic properties of both materials have also been exaggerated, whilst just as their supposed unique provenance in Russia turns out in both cases to be untrue, so in both cases it has also turned out to be untrue that the material can be scientifically proved to have come from Russia.

As it happens in the Litvinenko case the Russian authorities now say that the polonium probably came from Britain.

In fact the similarity between the polonium evidence in the Litvinenko case and the Novichok evidence in the Skripal case is so strong that I for one am left wondering whether the idea of using an exotic agent like a Novichok in the Skripal case came from the way the presence of polonium in the Litvinenko case was (wrongly) held to implicate Russia.

The fact that a television drama involving Russian gangsters has apparently recently been broadcast in which use of a Novichok agent is apparently an integral part of the plot shown may also have put the idea of using a Novichok into someone’s head, though I should say that I have not seen this drama and obviously I do not know this.

In any event use of a Novichok agent in the Skripal case is an interesting and important fact, but it is not conclusive of anything in and of itself.

Certainly it does not prove the identity of the perpetrator in the way that the British authorities have been saying that it does – or at least not in the way that they have been saying – and it should not be treated as it it does.

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