Sergei Skripal (66), a former Russian military intelligence (GRU) colonel, was arrested in Moscow in 2004 for allegedly being an agent of the United Kingdom’s MI6 intelligence service. Skripal was convicted, in 2006, to serve 13 years in prison for treason. In 2010, he was pardoned, released and sent to the UK in a major spy exchange involving a big group of “sleeper” spies who had been arrested in the United States, promptly convicted and deported to Russia (see EDM, July 8, 2010). On March 4, Skripal, who resided in Salisbury, England, was found on a public bench in a catatonic state, together with his daughter Yulia, a Russian citizen, who lives in Moscow and had come to the UK for a visit. According to British authorities, the Skripals were poisoned by a highly toxic and obscure nerve agent known as “Novichok,” allegedly developed during the Cold War in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Unlike more conventional nerve agents such as sarin or VX, little is known about Novichok. It apparently is much more poisonous than other nerve agents, it can be produced in a so-called “binary formula”—consisting of two relatively harmless compounds that react to form a potent poison immediately after mixture. The main source of public knowledge about Novichok is the former Soviet chemist Vil Mirzayanov (83), who worked at Russia’s main chemical weapons research institute, GosNIIKhT, and had top security clearance OV (Osoboy Vazhnosti). In 1992, together with co-worker Lev Fedorov, he published an exposé in Moskovskiye Novosti of Russia’s illegal development of the family of Novichok-type nerve agents. Mirzayanov was immediately arrested and accused of treason. During the ensuing legal proceedings, the Russian authorities apparently acknowledged the existence of Novichok. Mirzayanov was eventually released and allowed to emigrate to the US, where he now resides. According to Mirzayanov, only Russia has the technical ability to carry out an attack using the nerve gas Novichok (Newsru.com, March 13).
British Prime Minister Theresa May has demanded that Moscow provide information about the Novichok program. And after Russia refused, she announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats allegedly connected to Russian intelligence services. All high-level contacts between Moscow and London will be suspended, the extensive Russian business interests in Britain will be scrutinized and there will be more security checks of Russian nationals. The official Russian reaction has been defiant. Moscow declared intentions to expel British diplomats. And it is possible it will not be just a tit-for-tat response; the reductions in personnel may be more severe in order to cripple the UK mission’s work in Moscow. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs defiantly announced that the British authorities’ harassment of wealthy Russians who live and keep their families in the UK would be fine—let them return to Russia with their wealth (Interfax, March 14).
Russian officials have been adamantly rejecting any Russian connection to the Salisbury poisoning, accusing the UK of failing to produce concrete evidence of their involvement. The nerve agent attack in Salisbury has been described as a “provocation,” implying that it was the British themselves who made the Novichok nerve agent and used it, planning to accuse Russia. Blaming endemic “Russophobia,” Russia’s permanent representative to the United Natoins, Vasiliy Nebenzhya, claimed Russia is innocent and had no interest in poisoning Skripal (Interfax, March 15).
Some Russian officials maintain the Novichok nerve agent has been destroyed in Russia together with all other chemical weapons (Militarynews.ru, March 14). Other officials insist Novichok was never officially defined as a chemical weapon and was not destroyed, because it never officially existed (Interfax, March 14). Mirzayanov, who is apparently the main whistleblower on Novichok, is being actively discredited by the pro-Kremlin press (Komsomolskaya Pravda, March 15). Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov categorically denied there ever was a secret nerve agent program named “Novichok in Russia or in the USSR,” while Russia has stopped all work on developing new chemical weapons and has completed the destruction of existing stockpiles. Ryabkov referred to Mirzayanov as a “defector,” who was not trustworthy (Militarynews, March 15).
Moscow seems to have been more angered than frightened by the announced new sanctions. The UK may huff and puff, but on its own it cannot do Russia any serious harm, concluded Russian commentators. To make the Russian banking sector really suffer by blocking its access to the international SWIFT money transfer system, London would need active support from its allies, which is seen as unlikely. The US and other major Western countries have expressed solidarity with the UK after the Salisbury attack, but Moscow seems to calculate that no one in the West is ready to go much further than that. BP has an almost 20 percent stake in Rosneft, Russia’s state-controlled oil major, and its interests could suffer if the Skripal case leads to additional punitive economic sanctions. It is believed in Moscow that the entire Skripal story will blow over and result in additional fractioning of the already disunited West (Interfax, March 14).
On March 1, during his annual address to parliament, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia is winning the nuclear arms race by producing an array of fancy super-weapons. Putin declared that the West (the US) has failed to deter or control Russia by sanctions or by building missile defenses and in effect demanded a “negotiated” Western surrender (see EDM, March 1, 5, 8). But the West and the US seem to be insufficiently impressed by Putin’s address to agree to negotiate their strategic surrender. While tensions between Russia and the Western world may rise further, the Skripal case is clearly sending a powerful message to all potential defectors inside the Russian system that treason does not work and the West cannot guarantee them their safety. At the same time, it challenges the West to try and move further than empty words and threats. If the West fails to react with anything more substantial than huffing, Moscow wins. If the West manages to actually together move into SWIFT freeze territory, the Kremlin propaganda machine could fall back into full siege-mentality mode, rallying the population around the Kremlin and Putin against the Western aggressors. The logic of Russian actions may perplex and dismay many in the West, but though it might seem alien, it is still efficient.