Sergei Skripal, Novichoks, and Accusations

One of the more depressing pieces of news this week was the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia by what appears to be a Novichok agent. There is a large family of these, which were developed in the old Soviet Union as chemical weapons. Their structure involves a phosphoramidate or a phosphonate, either of which is often fluorinated. These can be made simply by mixing two chemicals: a substituted phosphoryl compound with at least one halogen on it, and if there happen to be two fluoride substituents, displacing one of these leaves the other fluoride as part of what is desired. The other compound appears to usually involve an amine or an oxime, and phosgene oxime (a chemical weapon in its own right called CX) appears to form particularly active Novichoks. A major advantage of these as war chemicals is that they can be made by mixing the chemicals at the point of use, which makes them safer to handle up to use, especially if they can be mixed remotely. The Novichoks are extremely dangerous, as can be seen in that when the Skripals collapsed after being poisoned elsewhere, a policeman who came to help was himself struck down by residue seemingly adhering to the Skripals.

As might be expected, everyone has jumped up and down blaming the Russians, and of course, they may well be to blame. The Russian case for innocence is not helped by the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko some time ago with 210-polonium, which in some ways was quite clever in that after administering, it takes several days before any symptoms appear, so the villain would have left the country before a crime was even recognized. While we do not know who did that, the actual use of such an isotope meant that the perpetrator had to have access to extremely dangerous isotopes, and that strongly suggests a nation such as Russia. You can’t make such isotopes in a shed, even with an unlimited budget.

However, Novichoks are not particularly difficult to make for a skilled chemist. The synthesis would involve some sophisticated equipment and quite a bit of patience to make them from chemicals you could often purchase if you were in the chemical business, but they are not impossible for someone with the necessary skill. It would be very difficult to make them on a large scale, but a gram of each precursor would not be that difficult. There are other sources. They were developed in the old Soviet Union, and not just in Russia. Uzbekistan was one of the places, and I would suspect other parts also had some of the necessary chemicals. Of course Russia would be a good source.

Teresa May delivered some sort of ultimatum to the Russian government: either account for all your Novichok agents within about 36 hours, or “face the consequences”. With the best will in the world, I doubt a country as large as Russia could account for its entire chemical stock in that short a time. Probably much less than a gram of each precursor would have been used, and I doubt any country could account for that degree of accuracy in a chemical stock in that time, if ever. However, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, did make a response: he asked for a sample of the Novichok. Given there were could be many of them, and the different ones could well have originated from different places, wanting to know the structure is a reasonable request. Maybe a sample of the agent is too much to ask, but at the least a mass spectrum would be helpful because that should define which Novichok was used, assuming it was one.

As it happens, Russia did not respond to May’s demands. Now what? The problem with delivering an ultimatum is that if the other side declines to give in, you have to deliver, and Britain’s position is too weak to worry Russia.

So, who else could be responsible? What we have to realize is that Skripal, as a double agent, managed to hand over a GRU list of agents in the West, most of whom were promptly arrested. Now suppose, many years later, some were released? Or one of their associates who managed to avoid detection found out where the Skripals were? Anyone want to bet they would not have a motive? The man they trusted, a senior officer in their own organization, handed them over to the West, and they, whose lives had been ruined, don’t want payback? And why a Novichok? The real problem with them is there is a good chance the damage is permanent. The victim may recover, but only partially, and some nerve damage will be permanent. That would be revenge.

So how do we find out? My guess is good old police work. It is known when it happened, where it happened, it was a public place so someone must know something. Britain has a large number of surveillance sites, and with any luck, images of the perpetrators will be available. Let us wait and see what the investigations produce before jumping on the bandwagon. Evidence is what we need. Facts. Not wild accusations. Maybe it was the Russian government, but not necessarily. If the perpetrator can be identified, at least an arrest warrant can be issued. In the meantime, being a KGB defector does not look like being a good position to have.