‘Unknown’ newcomer novichok was long known

Russian poison gas The attack on double agent Skripal made an unknown Russian nerve agent instantly famous. But it has been known to the security services since the nineties. Public knowledge was vigorously suppressed all this time.

The chemical formula of novichok. Publishing this formula isn't dangerous because the substance is incredibly hard to reproduce in a laboratory. Illustration by Rik van Schagen

So novichoks exist - and these poison gases are life threatening. These Russian nerve agents-that-must-not-be-mentioned are suddenly in the spotlights.

On Monday March 12, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that a nerve agent from the novichok group was used for the attack on the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal. For five days, the substance was called ‘a rare nerve agent’. This had brought experts to wild speculation on blogs and in forums. Now suddenly the child had a name: novichok. Russian for: newcomer.

The experts were amazed. The suspected Russian assailants had used a means of which it was certain in advance that it would lead to Russia. At the same time, they had broken the carefully kept silence about that substance in one go. Just as interesting was that the British research institute for chemical weapons in Porton Down was able to find out, without any significant effort, that the substance used was a ‘novichok’. This has created a completely new situation around the novichoks.

For an outsider, it is not easy to get information about novichoks. Not only in Russia, but also in the West there is a lot of secretiveness about these substances, up to today. For example, they are noticeably missing on the otherwise comprehensive ’Annex on Chemicals’ of the chemical weapons convention. And on the internet so many completely different formulas for the novichoks are offered, that it is impossible to make head or tail of it. The impression is that incorrect information has been distributed intentionally.

It is now certain that the description given by the Russian chemist Vil Mirzayanov in 2009 of the novichoks in his book ’State Secrets’ is correct. His structural formulas are gradually being copied into manuals. The internationally renowned British chemist Julian Perry Robinson, who has been publishing about chemical weapons for fifty years, confirms the correctness. The well-informed American biologist / political scientist Jonathan Tucker also turned to information of Mirzayanov for his book ‘War of nerves’ (2006). The Dutch chemist Henk Benschop, who brought State Secrets to the attention, saw no reason to doubt the correctness of Mirzayanov’s assertions. Benschop, now deceased, worked at the TNO institute in Rijswijk, which, like ‘Porton Down’, is conducting research into chemical weapons.

It is not certain whether the novichoks are indeed 5 to 8 times more toxic than the Western VX and whether or not a novichok infection cannot be cured, as Mirzayanov claims. But it has now been refuted that the substances would not be detectable, as he also claimed.

Mirzayanov’s State Secrets is a bulky, technical and not very accessible book that not everyone will read for pleasure. But it gives a brilliant insight into the way the Soviets developed nerve agents. It is indispensable for a good understanding of the mystery and the disinformation around the novichoks.

PO Box 702 in Moscow

From 1965 to 1992, Mirzayanov worked as an expert in the field of gas chromatography at the State Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology GOSNIIOKhT in Moscow. At this secret institution, formally known only as ‘PO Box 702’, the Soviets developed new chemical weapons. They synthesized a Russian version of the British-American VX (later called RVX, VR or ‘substance 33’) and around 1971, Pyotr Kirpichev discovered the unprecedented toxicity of the substances that would eventually be called ‘novichoks’. The first substance was given the code A-230, a variant that proved more useful was coded A-232. A whole family of novichoks has emerged.

Mirzayanov experienced it very closely, he analysed the purity of the preparations in the laboratory and in field tests. But gradually, he became aware of the great danger that people and the environment had to fear from the work on nerve agents. The ‘glasnost’ that President Gorbachev had proclaimed offered him the opportunity to sound the alarm bell. In 1991, he warned the Muscovites in newspaper Kuranty for the presence of the institute GOSNIIOKhT. He was promptly dismissed. His article received hardly any attention.

Mirzayanov received the support of chemist Lev Fedorov, who was writing the history of the Soviet investigation into chemical weapons and in September 1992, they published together again, much more extensively and in firmer language. „In GOSNIIOKhT a new nerve agent has been developed that is considerably more toxic than the known VX,” they wrote. „It can be applied as a binary agent. Field tests with this substance continue to this day.” Within a month, Mirzayanov was put in jail. Very fortunately, the two had given an interview to correspondent Will Englund of The Baltimore Sun, which reported extensively about the case.

This was the moment when the novichoks became known in the West. The essence of the history of the novichoks is that this news was inopportune for the West at the time. After more than twenty years of negotiations, the text of the chemical weapons convention (CWC) had just been accepted; it would be signed in only a few weeks. Now suddenly it became clear that the Soviets had deceived the West! Negotiations had not been conducted in good faith, they had not provided the disclosure that had been counted on, they had never said a word about the novichoks. In order to save the CWC, the West decided to ignore the existence of the novichoks, even to deny it. The reporter who phoned TNO in 1992 was told that reports about novichoks were nonsense.

With hindsight, it is a miracle that this policy of denying has worked. Because Mirzayanov, who was released under pressure from Western publicity and emigrated to the US in 1995, was welcomed there with enthusiasm and respect. He was offered a position at Edgewood Arsenal, the American centre for research on chemical weapons (he refused); he testified for a subcommittee of the senate, wrote essays and was interviewed right and left. He married an American woman and settled in Princeton.

The GOSNIIOKhT toxic gas laboratory, Moscow.
Photo V.S. Mirzayanov, ‘State Secrets’.

In Russia, Lev Fedorov, with whom Mirzayanov had a fierce argument by then, benefited from the open atmosphere that had arisen under Boris Yeltsin. As a kind of spin-off from his historiography, he reported on GOSNIIOKhT and revealed (in 1993) the structure of the Russian VX. His work was quoted in Western professional magazines and it became clear that institutions such as Edgewood had been investigating the Russian VX quickly and openly. The decisive factor must have been that the Russian VX is not very different from the American VX- and is also less toxic.

But the novichoks were swept under the carpet. They are not listed in the chemical weapons convention, signed in early January 1993 and entered into force in 1997. The OPCW organization, based in The Hague, which monitors compliance with the convention, has pretended many, many years as if they did not exist. Not even when one of the GOSNIIOKhT directors, Victor Petrunin, was a member of the scientific advisory board of the OPCW between 1998 and 2002. Novichoks were kept secret.

When the British chemist Julian Perry Robinson published his suspicion of the structure in 2003 based on some loose data on the production of novichok, he was called to order at a high level. „I had to appear before a committee of the ministries involved and got a reprimand. This has never happened to me before” he told in 2014. “And it was just an experiment, I wanted to know if I was right.” He was practically right, as he was almost right in 1970 when he, as a young chemist, discovered the structure of the secret VX and published it in the margins of a WHO brochure.

A kind of understanding

In Princeton, Vil Mirzayanov did notice that there was hardly any attention for the novichoks. Apparently, some kind of understanding was established between Russians and Americans about the substances, he said in 2014 by e-mail. „I believe that this was deeply wrong.” Already in 2002, he had published his memoirs written in Russian in Tatarstan (he is a proud Tatar), without going into technical details. Now he decided to publish his memoirs in English - and with technical details. The latter was not noticed initially by the authoritative political scientist and chemical weapon expert Amy Smithson, who would act as co-author. She withdrew when it became clear that Mirzayanov would also reveal the structure of the novichoks. After that, Mirzayanov could no longer find a publisher and in February 2009, he published the book at his own expense.

Something strange happened. Almost no one responded, hardly anyone discussed the work. The institutes and magazines that defended him when he was imprisoned in 1992 and 1994, were silent now. A single journal (CBRNe World, the Journal of Slavic Military Studies) published an angry comment: extremely irresponsible! When the expelled Russian arms expert Kanatzhan Alibekov published a shocking book (Biohazard) in 1999 about the Russian work on biological weapons, he got all the attention. He was received everywhere and was a regular guest in TV programs for a long time. Vil Mirzayanov was not received anywhere. He produced his own broadcasts on You Tube.

Telegrams from WikiLeaks

It is difficult to figure out what has been behind this. „I know the American government is not happy with me”, Mirzayanov e-mailed. What he did not know is that the American and British government actively acted to prevent publicity over his book ‘State Secrets’ and novichoks. The impact this had can be found in the diplomatic telegrams that WikiLeaks started to release by the end of 2010 (’Cablegate’). In a telegram classified ‘secret’ of March 26, 2009, the US Embassy in The Hague reports to CIA, National Security Council and State Department that ‘State Secrets’ and novichoks were discussed within OPCW circles and that Mirzayanov now appeared on YouTube. The British had already taken corrective action, now the American embassy asked for instruction. That instruction came on April 3: „Avoid any substantive discussion about State Secrets, discourage that discussion and report all cases in which the book is discussed anyway.”

At home in Princeton, Mirzayanov repeatedly got visits from the FBI. „They keep asking me about the details in my book”, he notes on his blog at the end of May 2009. „They are probably not happy with my revelations.” Later he discovered that the FBI registered who bought his book with the intention of buying back the books. On YouTube, he explained for the sake of safety that terrorists could not take advantage of his revelations. They would lose their lives in the preparation of the novichoks.

Perry Robinson also thinks that the secrecy has nothing to do with terrorists. „For goodness’ sake, why would they use these novichoks? And why not a bomb or another nerve agent?” It is clear: Western silence about novichoks is related to the protection of the chemical weapons convention. Better an incomplete convention than no convention, an initiate says.

Meeting by a department of GOSNIIOKhT, 1978. Right: the inventor of novichok Pyotr Kirpichev.

Photo V.S. Mirzayanov, ‘State Secrets’.

What caused the chemical chaos around novichoks on the internet, and what has kept the correct formulas of Mirzayanov out of the picture this way, is worth a separate study. Enthusiasts who have been operating in various forums such as ‘Samosa’, ‘DDTea’, ‘Megalomania’ and ‘Fritz’ have unmistakeably created a lot of confusion. The (incorrect) Wikipedia lemma ’novichok agent’ mainly relies on the contribution, since March 2008, of an unknown person using the name ‘Meodipt’. There is a striking overlap between the Wikipedia lemma and an American military patent that - also - deals with novichoks. Much of the quoted literature can be found in the historical overview that Lev Fedorov has published in the meantime.

A wrong track that has kept many experts busy - and still does - has been plotted in an incredibly intriguing way: as a comprehensive technical review (a so-called ‘customer review’) on a manual about chemical weapons on Amazon’s site. It appeared late 2003 and Amazon has removed it - interestingly enough - but said ‘Samosa’ had saved it and put it back on the internet.

It is striking that this detailed but completely incorrect information about novichoks is signed by Anatoly Kuntsevich. That is a notorious Russian general who - strangely enough - was already dead at the end of 2003. Kuntsevich suddenly died from a heart attack in March 2002. The key question is whether the incorrect information is based on a misunderstanding or whether it has been deliberately distributed. The outsider believes that it holds the fingerprints of Lev Fedorov, but when asked, Fedorov explicitly denies any involvement.

    • Karel Knip