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Anton Utkin

PhD in Chemistry, Chemical Weapons Expert, Former UN inspector in Iraq, Creator of Russian chemical weapons destruction technologies

The poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter and the ensuing accusations leveled against Russia by the UK have reignited interest in so-called Novichok nerve agents.

All the information currently being made available about Novichok agents mainly comes from the media and politicians and is based on chemist Vil Mirzayanov’s article, book, and assorted interviews. The topic is also addressed in recent statements by two other chemists, Vladimir Uglev and Leonid Rink. It’s worth noting that the three scientists strongly contradict one another.

To understand what Novichok is all about, a number of key questions must first be answered:

  • are the agents combined under the umbrella term Novichok truly unique chemical warfare agents in terms of their properties, and are they covered by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC);
  • have the USSR or Russia have ever had chemical weapons based on any of the Novichok agents in their arsenals;
  • can Novichok agents be synthesized by following the formulations published by Mirzayanov;
  • is there a signature that could be used to trace such an agent back to the laboratory that produced it.

The poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter and the ensuing accusations leveled against Russia by the UK have reignited interest in so-called Novichok nerve agents.

All the information currently being made available about Novichok agents mainly comes from the media and politicians and is based on chemist Vil Mirzayanov’s article, book, and assorted interviews. The topic is also addressed in recent statements by two other chemists, Vladimir Uglev and Leonid Rink. It’s worth noting that the three scientists strongly contradict one another.

At present, there are no reasons to believe that the substances published under the umbrella name of Novichok are suitable for warfare application.

To begin with, Mirzayanov’s book contains the structures for eight compounds which the author classifies as Novichok agents. Uglev, in turn, alleges that Mirzayanov does not in fact know these compounds’ structures because “his book does not mention any specific agents or their precursors.” Rink, for his part, states that “there has never been any specific agent called Novichok.” Unlike Mirzayanov, Uglev does not use the term Novichok in the context of specific agents, whereas Rink maintains that Novichok means “combat systems which differ in their structures and mechanism of action” and has nothing to do with any specific agents. Rink also says that “[Mirzayanov] did not take part in the discussion of the systems as they were being developed; nor did he have anything to do with the manufacturing of chemical weapons.” To corroborate his statements, Mirzayanov has posted on Facebook a classified text (not a photocopy, just a typed text) which he alleges comes from a criminal case against himself. However, seeing as the criminal proceedings were instigated over his disclosure of classified information, he should have been stripped of his clearance, meaning there is no way he could have accessed classified materials. Mirzayanov alleges that the Novichok agents were manufactured as binary compounds, whereas Uglev categorically states that “nobody has ever possessed a binary [chemical] weapon.” Mirzayanov suggests that Novichok is not covered by the CWC, and that no antidote exists. Uglev concurs that there is no antidote. However, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who was exposed to the agent while trying to help the Skripals, is well again. The formula Mirzayanov cites for the A-234 compound that is believed to have been used to poison the Skripals drastically differs from the one which Steven L. Hoenig cites for the same compound in his Compendium of Chemical Warfare Agents.

The list of contradicting statements goes on, but in the absence of any hard facts to back up the statements of the opponents in this “dispute by correspondence,” it all comes down to a war of statements.

To understand what Novichok is all about, a number of key questions must first be answered:

  • are the agents combined under the umbrella term Novichok truly unique chemical warfare agents in terms of their properties, and are they covered by the CWC;
  • have the USSR or Russia have ever had chemical weapons based on any of the Novichok agents in their arsenals;
  • can Novichok agents be synthesized by following the structures published by Mirzayanov;
  • is there a signature that could be used to trace such an agent back to the laboratory that produced it.

Novichok’s possible “unique” properties and its relation to the CWC

Mirzayanov emigrated to the United States some 20 years ago; he published the details of the agents in question in 2008, i.e. roughly 10 years ago. During this time, the U.S. and other states possessing the research capabilities to develop toxic agents may have synthesized these compounds to test their combat capability. As a rule, any promising chemical is tested for possible application as a warfare agent. For starters, the it is critical to ensure protection against such weapons. Secondly, the CWC actually permits research activities and activities for protective purposes using all types of agents. This includes permission under the Convention to single small-scale facility that can produce up to 1 ton of Schedule 1 chemicals per year, single facility that can produce up to 10 kg per year, and also an unlimited number of facilities capable of producing up to 100 g of chemical agents (additionally, up to 100 g of such substances may be produced for research, medical, or pharmaceutical purposes at various sites with aggregate amount not exceeding 10 kg per year). Nevertheless, no country has declared that these substances have any advantages over the existing combat agents, including sarin, soman, or VX.

It should be noted that the toxicity of a chemical agent is not the only feature that makes it suitable for combat use. There are a great number of chemicals that are much more toxic than the existing warfare agents. The U.S. Army, for example, used to have Botulinum toxin in its arsenal, codenamed X and XR. This substance is over 1,000 times more toxic than VX-classed substances. Its effect, however, is significantly lower than that of the VX substances, given that Botulin toxin comes in a solid state. It is much more difficult to introduce a solid-state agent into a human body than a gaseous or liquid one. In addition, a potential chemical agent must be stable, come with antidotes, be able to be rendered safe with standard decontamination solutions, and prevent corrosion of the munitions in which it is to be contained and used. Apart from a dozen more criteria that must be met, a new chemical agent must be extremely cheap to produce because any chemical weapon is extremely expensive in terms of production.

Furthermore, in 1994, Gen. Nikolay Antonov, formerly the head of the Soviet Army’s Shikhany-based research institute, proved beyond any doubt in his book Chemical Weapons at the Turn of the Century [1] that the most effective combat chemical weapons are classed under the VX category. Any agent more toxic than the VX class would inevitably have inferior combat parameters compared to that of the VX agents.

Nevertheless, as previously reported, in April 2011 the Scientific Advisory Board at the OPCW reviewed the alleged Novichok agents whose structures had been included in Mirzayanov’s book and claimed to have toxicity exceeding that of VX. The board concluded “that there has been no confirmation of the author's claims”; it also confirmed that said substances are covered by the CWC (substances containing phosphorus-carbon bonds are declareble as Schedule 2 B4 chemicals, and substances which do not contain this bond are listed as “other chemical production facilities.” The OPCW revisited the issue in 2013 and reiterated the absence of any new information, adding that any potential chemicals to be used as chemical weapons are covered by the CWC.

This means that the answer to the first question is as follows: at present, there are no reasons to believe that the substances published under the umbrella name of Novichok are suitable for warfare application. All of these agents are unconditionally covered by the CWC.

Chemical weapons in Russia

Neither the Soviet Army nor the Russian Army has ever had Novichok-type substances in its arsenals.

By the early 1980s, the U.S. was facing the problem of aging chemical stockpiles. According to army generals of the time, 90% of the arsenals were of little to no military use [2]. In particular, M55 missiles filled with sarin or VX posed a serious threat because the aluminum containers corroded over time, resulting in frequent leaks. In addition, a reduction in the concentration of the stabilizer in the propellant significantly increased the risk of spontaneous fuel ignition [3]. This prompted the National Research Council under the National Academy of Sciences to recommend in 1984 that the U.S. Army speed up the process of disposing of these chemical weapons [4]. In the meantime, the Soviet chemical stockpiles, whose creation had lagged behind that of their American counterparts by about 10 to 15 years, featured more advanced munitions that allowed for more effective use and longer storage capacity [5]. To ensure a parity with the Soviet Union, the U.S. launched a program aimed at developing binary chemical weapons [6], theoretically allowing Washington to destroy non-binary chemical stockpiles without losing its military potential.

At the same time, the U.S. remained under political pressure as a result of having used irritants and defoliants in Vietnam in 1961-69. The consequences of these actions were still being discussed within the UN.

By the mid-1980s, the USSR had also begun experiencing certain difficulties. The country undoubtedly wielded the world’s largest, and fairly effective, stockpile of chemical weapons. However, the U.S. program to create binary chemical weapons was threatening to disrupt the parity between the two main holders of chemical weapons. Moscow’s possible responses were to:

  • launch its own binary chemical weapons program;
  • upgrade its unitary chemical weapons;
  • lobby for a bilateral agreement to destroy both unitary and potential binary chemical weapons.

The options of creating binary chemical weapons and improving existing unitary weapons were offset by the aforementioned inability to create more effective chemical weapons.

This effectively rendered the idea infeasible for the Soviet Union; the massive cost factor was also important as the country’s budget was meagre. The situation forced the Soviet leadership to become actively involved in the chemical disarmament process.

By the early 1990s, Russia’s financial capabilities had decreased substantially, compromising not only the creation of new chemical weapons, but also the destruction of existing ones. As the result, Russia was forced to ask for foreign help in disposing of its arsenals. No new chemical weapons could have possibly been created under these circumstances. The production of chemical weapons requires a factory. Unlike ordinary enterprises, only 10% of such a factory would be directly involved in production; the rest would be safety systems, personnel protection, pollution abatement systems and waste water treatment. Perimeter security and counterterrorism measures would also be a must. Such a factory would require a great number of suppliers for raw materials, equipment, protection devices, consumables, electricity, fuel, and lubricants. It would need to have well-developed infrastructure including railway lines, communications, transport links, warehouses with air purification systems, and security systems. Apart from the technical personnel, which need to have unique knowledge and expertise, such a factory would also need to have a constant availability of medical services, fire brigades, paramilitary security, and so on. It would need to have a constant inflow of munitions to be filled with chemical agents and then sent off to military arsenals.

Producing the substances published under the collective name of Novichok is not particularly difficult in practice, and it is known that some countries have been doing this.

This is just a cursory glance of the complex procedure required to add any new chemical weapon to the arsenal. The reality is even more complex. We haven’t even mentioned aspects related to R&D, development of munitions, testing and, most importantly, the massive costs, which would be impossible to conceal, let alone allocate from the state budget without any questions being asked.

One mustn’t forget the unprecedented openness of Russia following the USSR’s collapse, and the fact that in the 1990s there wasn’t a single classified installation that hadn’t been visited by a foreign delegation. The author personally attended Senator Richard Lugar’s visit to the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology in 2003. There is no chance that such an establishment on production of chemical weapons could have been overlooked by foreign intelligence services.

There are also an abundance of stories making rounds on the Internet purportedly originating from eyewitnesses and participants involved in the manufacturing of chemical agents in Chapayevsk, Dzerzhinsk, Novocheboksarsk, and other locations, featuring details that could not have been simply concocted (even though some of these stories should be taken with a grain of salt). However, nothing remotely resembling a description of Novichok’s production facilities can be found anywhere.

At the same time, Mirzayanov asserts that Novichok can be produced in binary form under the guise of pesticides so that the producers do not have a clue. This suggestion seems to be out of reality: all the possible technologies for phosphorus compounds (and all the structures described in Mirzayanov’s book are for organophosphorus compounds) are known in minute detail. Therefore, all their precursors are on the controlled lists (including methylphosphonyl dichloride and dimethyl methylphosphonate from Schedule 2 or phosphorus oxychloride, phosphorus trichloride, phosphorus pentachloride, etc. from Schedule 3). In accordance with the CWC, inspection control is to be maintained both over the manufacturing of these precursors and over their consumption, up to the end user. This means that OPCW inspectors have to control how such substances are consumed. Therefore, the idea that such substances are being used for any other purposes is extremely difficult to believe.

Finally, speaking as the head of the team which developed all the primary technologies involved in the destruction of chemical weapons in Russia, the author can state with certainty that he has never heard of any toxic agent in the Russian arsenal that would have anything in common either with the term Novichok or with the structures published by Mirzayanov.

This analysis essentially provides an answer to the second question. Neither the Soviet Army nor the Russian Army has ever had Novichok-type substances in its arsenals.

Who may be producing Novichok

The discovery in the 1950s of highly toxic organophosphates resulted in explosive growth in research in this field. Professional literature describes a massive number of phosphorus-based substances, complete with detailed descriptions of their synthesis, from basic ones up to the most complex structures. The structures published by Mirzayanov are not particularly complex; they do not differ much from the traditional toxic agents including tabun, sarin, and VX. We can state with certainty that an experienced chemist specializing in organophosphates would have no difficulty synthesizing such compounds in a laboratory. In fact, even a brainy chemist without any specialization in organophosphates but with access to scientific publications and numerous available studies involving the chemistry of phosphorus might just fit the bill.

As previously mentioned, whenever new information emerges related to potential new chemical weapons, most countries try to assess these new agents’ potential. We may safely assume that, once Mirzayanov had his book published, many laboratories around the world immediately synthesized the compounds according to his structures. That is, of course, if they had not already synthesized the structures prior to Mirzayanov’s revelations as part of a mass screening involving different chemical formulations. It is, after all, an open secret that when a large number of researchers are working in the same narrow field, there is a high probability that some of them will independently arrive at the same result. For example, the V gases were discovered virtually simultaneously by Ranajit Ghosh in Britain and by Lars-Erik Tammelin in Sweden.

As for the structures purportedly known under the umbrella name Novichok, there was a report in January 2017 that Iranian scientists had synthesized five of these substances and four deuterated analogues (with deuterium used instead of hydrogen for a more detailed study of the substance’s structure). The Iranians analyzed the substances using chromatography-mass spectrometry and sent the mass-spectra to the OPCW. This activity was most likely covered by the CWC, but it indicates that manufacturing such substances is not difficult. It also means that other countries may possess Novichok-type substances.

There are reasons to believe that the Iranians were not the only ones to synthesize the substance, and the possibility exists that a number of countries have been producing these substances and might have even submitted the results of their analyses to the OPCW.

The answer to the third question, therefore, is thus: producing the substances published under the collective name of Novichok is not particularly difficult in practice, and it is known that some countries have been doing this.

Lab signature myths

Impurities may point to a manufacturing technology. This does not mean, however, an unequivocal conclusion as to which technology was used.

One of the most dangerous delusions currently being created by the media is the myth that each laboratory has its unique signature, and that any chemical agent sample can definitively be tracked down according to its origin. Why is this myth dangerous? First, it is technically wrong. Second, it can be exploited politically. For example, the UK might say it has identified the “signature” of a Russian lab without explaining how it was done but only referring to Russian scientists who “had admitted” that Russian labs do have their own signatures.v

The only source of information about a substance is its composition, i.e. all the chemical compounds contained therein, and their concentrations. As a matter of fact no sample contains only single compound 100 % pure. Any substance will inevitably contain impurities. Where do these come from? First, impurities are present in the original reagents. Second, the chemical reaction itself results in byproducts. If we are talking about a multiple-stage manufacturing process, each of the stages generates its own byproducts. Even though the intermediate product may be additionally purified after each phase, trace amounts of byproducts may remain until the end of the production cycle. At the same time, different technologies (meaning different chemical reactions) will result in different impurities.

Thus, we can argue that impurities may point to a manufacturing technology. This does not mean, however, an unequivocal conclusion as to which technology was used. For example, a reaction with a lack of reagent (rather than excess) may result in some side reactions (which are only observed when there are significant amounts of the reagent) not taking place at all or run so slowly that virtually no byproducts would form. In other words, the concentration of impurities is also telling about the production method or some specific conditions.

Obviously, if we are talking about mass production involving hundreds or even thousands of tons per year, the stability of the composition and the related impurities would remain rather high. But even in industrial environments the composition differs from one batch to another; factories sometimes have to dispose of batches that do not match specifications.

When it comes to laboratory synthesis, fluctuations of impurities and their concentrations from one batch to another are even higher. Much depends on the skills of the chemists in charge of synthesizing, their personal ways of working, and their knowhow.

Is that labs have no distinct signature, meaning that it is impossible to positively trace a substance back to the lab which produced or the country in which it was manufactured.

When Uglev and Rink mention a lab signature, they are most likely referring to technological aspects of synthesis, i.e. the route the specific chemist followed in the multistage synthesis process. Despite the fact that both scientists are chemical specialists, the author doubts that they would be able to tell the difference between two products produced by two different laboratories according to the same technology.

There are, of course, impurities in the original reagents, which may pass through all the production stages and end up in the final product. For example, fluorspar extracted from a specific mine and then used in the manufacturing of phosphorus trichloride may contain a unique impurity characteristic of that mine. However, if a laboratory wants its product to resemble that of another laboratory, it can easily use phosphorus trichloride produced from that particular unique fluorspar.

In addition, one must bear in mind that every new analysis of the same substance will produce a somewhat different concentrations of impurities in the end product, no matter how many tests are run. This peculiarity is due to the equipment’s measurement errors.

At any rate, no court is going to accept as hard evidence a statement to the effect that if the compositions of two samples are identical, then their manufacturer is the same. There is always a theoretical possibility that the samples were made according to the same technology but in different places, and that it just so happened that the test batches’ parameters coincided. This is, at best, indirect evidence that can support a set of irrefutable evidences.

So the answer to the fourth question is that labs have no distinct signature, meaning that it is impossible to positively trace a substance back to the lab which produced or the country in which it was manufactured.

Conclusion

We can expect the number of Novichok’s “developers” and “witnesses” to expand in the coming months, seeing as the Skripals’ saga shows no signs of abating. These newcomers’ testimonies will contradict one another, but they are guaranteed to grow more vivid and apocalyptic over time.

As for possible scenarios behind the poisoning in Salisbury, we can expect the following presumptions to be made:

  • the OPCW will do its best to distance itself from London’s political statements, stressing at every turn that the organization is providing only “technical support”; the result of the mission to the UK will be identification of the poison in the collected samples and stating the type of poisoning without linking them to Russia;
  • London, nevertheless, will use any results and OPCW statements for its own political ends, stating that they “corroborate the accusations against Russia”;
  • the fact that there are other countries which have produced Novichok-type agents disproves the UK’s statements that Russia can be the only country responsible for using such agents;
  • Russia may ask the OPCW for information about all countries that have ever submitted Novichok-type analytical data;
  • should it be confirmed that other OPCW member countries have a history of producing such agents, Russia may demand that these countries disclose the details and be held accountable for spending every milligram of such substances;

  • having directly accused Russia, London has no room for a maneuver; the UK will now have to press on to the bitter end, putting more pressure on Russia and trying to convince other countries that Moscow is to blame; should these accusations prove to hold water, the Theresa May cabinet may well fall;
  • in this situation, Russia has nothing else to do but act decisively to defend its position and make its opinion known to the international community;
  • after designated laboratories have the UK samples analyzed Russia can request the UK according the the Article IX to provide explanation on what in the samples made the UK believe that the agent originated in Russia as well as to disclose the information on production of Novichok-type agents in the UK labs if any such production occured;
  • if Russia is not satisfied with the response it can seek assistance of the Executive Council to clarify this issue and even go further to request a special session of the Executive Council or even the Conference of the State Parties.

1. Nikolay Antonov Chemical Weapons at the Turn of the Centuries. – M.: Progress, 1994.

2. Disposal of Chemical Weapons: Alternative Technologies – Background Paper, U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment. – OTA-BP-O-95. - Washington, DC, U.S. Government Printing Office. – 1992. – p. 1.

3. Risk Analysis Supporting the Chemical Stockpile Disposal Program (CSDP), Mitre Corp., McLean, VA. – U.S. Army, Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD. – 1987.

4. Disposal of Chemical Munitions and Agents. National Research Council. – Washington, DC, National Academy Press. - 1984.

5. Alexander Gorbovsky Chemical Weapons to the Scrap Heap of History. // Chemical and Biological Security. – 2007. – No 2-3. – pp. 2-19.

6. U.S. program to deter chemical warfare. CD/264. – Committee on Disarmament, UNOG. – March 23, 1982.


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