On Monday, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that former Russian spy, Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia, were poisoned with “a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia” known as ‘Novichok’.
The chemical agent was identified by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down. May referred to the British government’s “knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so” as a basis to conclude that Russia’s culpability in the attack “is highly likely.”
On these grounds, she claimed that only two scenarios are possible:
Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”
The British government’s line has been chorused uncritically by the entire global press corps, with little scrutiny of its plausibility.
But there is a problem: far from offering a clear-cut evidence-trail to Vladimir Putin’s chemical warfare labs, the use of Novichok in the nerve gas attack on UK soil points to a wider set of potential suspects, of which Russia is in fact the least likely.
Russia did actually destroy its nerve agent capabilities according to the OPCW
Yet a concerted effort is being made to turn facts on their head.
No clearer sign of this can be found than in the statement by Ambassador Peter Wilson, UK Permanent Representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), in which he claimed that Russia has “failed for many years” to fully disclose its chemical weapons programme.
Wilson was parroting a claim made a year earlier by the US State Department that Russia had not made a complete declaration of its chemical weapons stockpile: “The United States cannot certify that Russia has met its obligations under the Convention.”
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Yet these claims are contradicted by the OPCW itself, which in September 2017 declared that the independent global agency had rigorously verified the completed destruction of Russia’s entire chemical weapons programme, including of course its nerve agent production capabilities.
OPCW Director-General, Ahmet Üzümcü, congratulated Russia with the following announcement:
The completion of the verified destruction of Russia’s chemical weapons programme is a major milestone in the achievement of the goals of the Chemical Weapons Convention. I congratulate Russia and I commend all of their experts who were involved for their professionalism and dedication. I also express my appreciation to the States Parties that assisted the Russian Federation with its destruction program and thank the OPCW staff who verified the destruction.”
The OPCW’s press statement confirmed that:
The remainder of Russia’s chemical weapons arsenal has been destroyed at the Kizner Chemical Weapons Destruction Facility in the Udmurt Republic. Kizner was the last operating facility of seven chemical weapons destruction facilities in Russia. The six other facilities (Kambarka, Gorny, Maradykovsky, Leonidovka, Pochep and Shchuchye) completed work and were closed between 2005 and 2015.”
The OPCW’s reports on Russia confirm that the agency found no evidence of the existence of an active Novichok programme.
It should be noted that Dr. Robin M. Black, formerly of Porton Down’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory — which reportedly confirmed the use of Novichok in the Salisbury assassination — sits on the Scientific Advisory Board of the OPCW. Yet a scientific review by Dr. Black also raised doubts about Novichok, noting that its properties and structures had not been independently confirmed.
Here is what Porton Down’s Dr Black wrote about Novichoks in a 2016 scientific review published by the Royal Society of Chemistry:
In recent years, there has been much speculation that a fourth generation of nerve agents, ‘Novichoks’ (newcomer), was developed in Russia, beginning in the 1970s as part of the ‘Foliant’ programme, with the aim of finding agents that would compromise defensive countermeasures. Information on these compounds has been sparse in the public domain, mostly originating from a dissident Russian military chemist, Vil Mirzayanov. No independent confirmation of the structures or the properties of such compounds has been published.
On the basis of this sort of analysis, the OPCW’s science board, which included Porton Down’s Dr Black as UK representative, concluded that:
… it has insufficient information to comment on the existence or properties of ‘Novichoks.’”
So in short, the OPCW does not agree with the vague US and British insistence that Russia failed to declare all its chemical weapons stockpiles and facilities, and does not agree with the insistence that Novichok stockpiles or production facilities exist in Russia. But it seems that neither does His Excellency Peter Wilson himself.
In a statement to the OPCW in November 2017, Ambassador Wilson congratulated the OPCW on verifying the complete destruction of Russia’s chemical weapons programme with high praise for its director, Ahmet Üzümcü. Wilson listed the latter’s numerous achievements including:
… the completion of the verified destruction of Russia’s declared chemical weapons programme.”
Yes, Wilson specified he was only talking about Russia’s “declared” programme, but he did not denounce the OPCW for failing to deal with an undeclared Novichoks programme. So how credible is his recent insinuation that the OPCW’s position is wrong?
Arguably, not very. Because the claim, tracing back to the State Department, that Russia has not declared all its chemical weapons, is based on the assertion that its Novichok capability still exists. But both Porton Down’s Dr. Black and the OPCW’s Science Advisory Board fundamentally questioned the “existence” of Novichok.
The lack of credibility of the Anglo-American critique of Russia’s destruction of its chemical weapons was called out in a detailed report by the respected Clingandael Institute of International Relations. The report, co-funded by the European Union, criticised the United States for adopting an unhelpful politicised approach to the chemical weapons issue in relation to Russia, while hypocritically delaying its own compliance obligations, all of which was done in a manner which bypassed OPCW mechanisms. It’s worth reproducing that entire text in full:
… on a political level there have been some drawbacks. Particularly interesting is that compliance concerns tend to be raised by the US, while this state is itself being criticized for delays in disarmament. In 2005, the US expressed concern about active offensive CW research and development (R&D) programmes, as well as inaccurate declarations regarding past CW transfers and undeclared CW facilities in Russia, China, Iran, Libya and Sudan. The US decided to address these concerns through bilateral channels, rather than directly engaging formal OPCW mechanisms. In the meantime, the US itself has been criticized for exporting arms classified as ‘toxicological agents’ (notably tear gas) to numerous countries in the Middle East (between 2009–13). Since 9/11, the US has also intensified its R&D on non-lethal chemical agents, along with new means of delivery and dispersal. The CWC (Article II, para. 2) does cover chemical compounds with incapacitating or irritant effects… Taken together with the delay in destroying US CW stockpiles, this has taken a toll on the US’ standing within the CWC, undermining its role as a ‘regime hegemon’. Since these compliance concerns remain unresolved, this has also, ipso facto, affected the authority of the CWC, and hence the OPCW.” [emphasis added]
In other words, the US did not raise its claimed concerns about Russia’s undeclared Novichoks through the proper mechanisms via OPCW, but only bilaterally. Why?
One possible explanation is that by not working through the issue with the OPCW, the US effectively circumvented the international verification process by which the Novichoks issue, if real, could be properly investigated and assessed. This has conveniently permitted the US and Britain to claim, entirely without evidence, that Russia is in non-compliance of the Chemical Weapons Convention by insisting that its Novichoks supplies and capabilities remain undeclared. Yet it is precisely the US’ own refusal to disclose and navigate the issue through the OPCW that means the matter can be made out to be forever unresolved.
The crux of it is this: At this point, neither the US nor Britain have offered any actual evidence as to why the OPCW’s verification process regarding Russia’s dismantlement of its chemical weapons capability should be disbelieved.They have provided no evidence that Russia retains any Novichok stockpiles.
The OPCW is, of course, the same agency whose independent investigations the West is relying on to determine culpability in major chemical weapons attacks in Syria. Why, then, would the OPCW’s conclusions on Syria be considered gospel truth, while its conclusions on Russia be rejected?
Not only has the press completely overlooked these kinks in the British government line, it has curiously ignored that Theresa May’s claims contradict the public statements of Mirzayanov.
Agence France Presse, for instance, declared in an opening paragraph to an interview with Mirzayanov, “The Russian chemist who first revealed the existence of ‘Novichok’ nerve agents says only the Russians can be behind the weapon’s use in Britain against a former spy and his daughter.” And yet, the AFP article went on to report:
The only other possibility, he said, would be that someone used the formulas in his book to make such a weapon.”
Mirzayanov’s book, published in 2008, contains the formulas he alleges can be used to create Novichoks. In 1995, he explained that “the chemical components or precursors” of Novichok are “ordinary organophosphates that can be made at commercial chemical companies that manufacture such products as fertilizers and pesticides.”
If his claims are remotely accurate, then that means Novichoks can actually be manufactured by anyone who reads Mirzayanov’s book with access to a decent laboratory. Which means that Theresa May’s claim that Novichoks lead only to Russia is little more than a deception.
Other states have Novichok capabilities, but the British government doesn’t want to investigate them
The OPCW’s authoritative verdict on Russia’s now destroyed chemical weapons capabilities should be enough to give anyone pause for thought in rushing to judgement concerning Russian responsibility for the Novichok attack.
Instead, the British government appears to have no interest in investigating the fact that there are other state agencies with significant nerve agent capabilities. Like its ally, the United States.
Under Boris Yeltsin, who won Russian elections thanks to Western covert meddling, the Russian government had declared that it was not stockpiling Novichok. This is why Yeltsin did not report Novichok’s existence under chemical-weapons conventions at the time — because the official Russian position was that the stockpiles no longer existed.
It turns out the Americans themselves were involved in the dismantlement of Russia’s remaining Novichok capabilities.
In August 1999, as the BBC reported, US defence experts arrived in Uzbekistan to help “dismantle and decontaminate one of the former Soviet Union’s largest chemical weapons testing facilities.” The facility was known as “a major research site for a new generation of secret, highly lethal chemical weapons, known as Novichok”, and provided the US ample opportunity to learn about this nerve agent and reproduce it for testing and defence purposes.
But it is not just the US. According to Craig Murray — former US Ambassador to Uzbekistan and prior to that a longtime career diplomat in the UK Foreign Office who worked across Africa, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia — the British government itself has advanced capabilities in Novichok:
The ‘novochok’ group of nerve agents — a very loose term simply for a collection of new nerve agents the Soviet Union were developing fifty years ago — will almost certainly have been analysed and reproduced by Porton Down. That is entirely what Porton Down is there for. It used to make chemical and biological weapons as weapons, and today it still does make them in small quantities in order to research defences and antidotes. After the fall of the Soviet Union Russian chemists made a lot of information available on these nerve agents. And one country which has always manufactured very similar persistent nerve agents is Israel.”
But the British government doesn’t want to investigate Porton Down, not even to rule out the possibility that it may have ‘lost control’ of some of its Novichok stockpiles.
Porton Down: proudly experimenting with nerve gas on the British public from the 1950s to 1989
Perhaps the government is worried about what it might actually discover if it asks too many questions about Porton Down itself.
The facility has a somewhat chequered history in relation to the abuse of chemical and biological weapons programmes that has been largely forgotten. This history illustrates that the British government has not at all been averse to using chemical and biological weapons on its own population, just to see what happens.
Two years ago, the Independent reported on new historical research which found that during the Cold War, the British government “used the general public as unwitting biological and chemical warfare guinea pigs on a much greater scale than previously thought.”
Over 750 secret operations had been carried out on “hundreds of thousands of ordinary Britons” involving “biological and chemical warfare attacks launched from aircraft, ships and road vehicles.”
“British military aircraft dropped thousands of kilos of a chemical of ‘largely unknown toxic potential’ on British civilian populations in and around Salisbury in Wiltshire, Cardington in Bedfordshire and Norwich in Norfolk… Substantial quantities were also dispersed across parts of the English Channel and the North Sea. It’s not known the extent to which coastal towns in England and France were affected… commuters on the London underground were also used as guinea pigs on a substantially larger scale than previously thought. The new research has discovered that a hitherto unknown biological warfare field trial was carried out in the capital’s tube system in May 1964. The secret operation — carried out by scientists from the government’s chemical and biological warfare research centre at Porton Down, Wiltshire — involved the release of large quantities of bacteria called Bacillus globigii…”
The new research also shows that many of the British scientists involved “had grave misgivings about the field trials… some had long felt that it was not politically advisable to conduct large-scale trials in Britain with live bacterial agents.” Such reservations did not stop the government from authorising these dangerous experiments.
Porton Down also conducted extensive nerve agent tests on British soldiers around this time.
Less well-known, though, is the fact that members of the British armed forces “were experimented on with Sarin, the deadly nerve gas, as late as 1983 at the Government’s defence research centre at Porton Down,” according to Ministry of Defence documents obtained by The Telegraph. Operation Antler, as the police investigation into the experiments was called, found that the nerve agent trials had gone on as late as 1989.
A secret British intelligence unit is actively arranging ‘honey trap’ propaganda operations to incriminate ‘adversaries’
There are strong reasons, then, not to fall slavishly in line with the British government’s rush to judgement on Russia.
But this is particularly the case given what we now know about British intelligence service’s disinformation intent and capabilities when dealing with “adversaries.”
National Security Agency documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that a secret British intelligence unit, Joint Threat Research and Intelligence Group (JTRIG), uses a range of “dirty tricks” against “nations, hackers, terror groups, suspected criminals and arms dealers that include releasing computer viruses, spying on journalists and diplomats, jamming phones and computers, and using sex to lure targets into ‘honey traps,’” according to a NBC News investigation.
Although much of the focus of these operations is online, they also include the goal of “having an impact in the real world” and “using online techniques to make something happen in the real or online world.” The modus operandi is to “destroy, deny, degrade [and] disrupt” enemies by “discrediting” them and planting misinformation designed to look like actions were performed by them.
Propaganda campaigns can use deception, mass messaging and “pushing stories” via Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and YouTube. One section of the document explains that such influence operations can involve direct efforts to manipulate people’s behaviour into compromising situations:
Honey trap; a great option. Very successful when it works.
– Get someone to go somewhere on the internet, or a physical location to be met by a ‘friendly face’.
– JTRIG has the ability to ‘shape’ the environment on occasions.”
Such capabilities and operations of deception at the heart of the British state raise perfectly reasonable questions about whether the UK’s intelligence services are deliberately seeking to pin the blame on Russia for geopolitical reasons — or perhaps, even, to distract from scrutiny of allies who might be legitimate suspects.
According to former British diplomat Craig Murray, for instance, it is more reasonable to cast the net of suspicion onto Israel for many of the same reasons cited by the British government:
Israel has the nerve agents. Israel has Mossad which is extremely skilled at foreign assassinations. Theresa May claimed Russian propensity to assassinate abroad as a specific reason to believe Russia did it. Well Mossad has an even greater propensity to assassinate abroad. And while I am struggling to see a Russian motive for damaging its own international reputation so grieviously, Israel has a clear motivation for damaging the Russian reputation so grieviously. Russian action in Syria has undermined the Israeli position in Syria and Lebanon in a fundamental way, and Israel has every motive for damaging Russia’s international position by an attack aiming to leave the blame on Russia.”
Murray further points out that it is unlikely the Russians “waited eight years to do this, they could have waited until after their World Cup.” Similarly, it makes little sense to suddenly assassinate a “swapped spy” who had already served his time and been living out in the open for years in the UK.
Murray is no blind Russiaphile, and so his critical analysis cannot be dismissed on grounds of partisanship. He describes himself as “someone who believes that agents of the Russian state did assassinate Litvinenko, and that the Russian security services carried out at least some of the apartment bombings that provided the pretext for the brutal assault on Chechnya. I believe the Russian occupation of Crimea and parts of Georgia is illegal.”
But he cautions that, given the severe lack of credible evidence on this case, he is “alarmed by the security, spying and armaments industries’ frenetic efforts to stoke Russophobia and heat up the new cold war.”
Indeed, INSURGE just reported on an extensive US Army study published last year which not only stated quite unequivocally that NATO expansionism is the main driver of Russian belligerence, but that NATO’s main interest has always been to rollback Russia’s regional influence so that the West can dominate Central Asian natural resources and oil pipeline routes.
The document recommended that in 2018, the US should consider pursuing a concerted covert “information” campaign to undermine Putin.
Is this what we are seeing play out right now as Theresa May rushes to punish Putin?
This leaves us with the following. The actual history of Novichok shows that out of the countries discussed here, Russia is the only state to have been certified by the OPCW as having destroyed its chemical weapons programme, including its nerve agent capabilities. The OPCW found no evidence to indicate that Russia retains an active Novichok capability. The same is not the case for the US, Britain and Israel.
There is no legitimate reason for the British authorities to rule out that any of these states could have at the very least ‘lost control’ of their nerve agent stockpiles. The fact that the government chose, instead, to shut down all avenues of inquiry other than to claim falsely that the “only possibility” is for all roads to lead to Russia, demonstrates that we are almost certainly in the midst of a concerted state propaganda operation.
It may turn out that Russia did indeed carry out the Novichok attack. But at this time, the British state has no real basis to presume this. Which implies that the state has already decided that it wants to manufacture a path to heightened hostilities with Russia, regardless of the evidence. And that does not bode well.
This article was updated on 14 March 2018.
Top Photo | Police officers wear protective suits inside the fence of “Ashley Wood Recovery”, a vehicle recovery business in Salisbury, England, Tuesday, March 13, 2018. The use of Russian-developed nerve agent Novichok to poison ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter makes it “highly likely” that Russia was involved, British Prime Minister Theresa May said Monday. Novichok refers to a class of nerve agents developed in the Soviet Union near the end of the Cold War. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is the founding editor of INSURGE intelligence. Nafeez is a 16-year investigative journalist, formerly of The Guardian where he reported on the geopolitics of social, economic and environmental crises. Nafeez reports on ‘global system change’ for VICE’s Motherboard, and on regional geopolitics for Middle East Eye. He has bylines in The Independent on Sunday, The Independent, The Scotsman, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, New York Observer, The New Statesman, Prospect, Le Monde diplomatique, among other places. He has twice won the Project Censored Award for his investigative reporting; twice been featured in the Evening Standard’s top 1,000 list of most influential Londoners; and won the Naples Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary award created by the President of the Republic. Nafeez is also a widely-published and cited interdisciplinary academic specializing in complex systems analysis.