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Chemical weapons stored for destruction at a facility in Gornyi in Russia’s Saratov region, May 20, 2020

‘It’s possible that I created it myself’ Chemical weapons experts explain who is capable of making ‘Novichok’ poisons and why their lethality makes them weapons to kill, not maim

Source: Meduza
Chemical weapons stored for destruction at a facility in Gornyi in Russia’s Saratov region, May 20, 2020
Chemical weapons stored for destruction at a facility in Gornyi in Russia’s Saratov region, May 20, 2020
AP / Scanpix / LETA

On September 2, the German government announced that Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok-type nerve agent. At a press conference on Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel stated unequivocally that Navalny is the victim of a crime, and added that she believes someone tried to “silence” him. As the Kremlin insists that the West is jumping to conclusions, the public response has turned to questions about responsibility for the attack. Does the use of a nerve agent mean that Russia’s intelligence community is to blame? Meduza asked three chemical weapons experts what they think.

OPCW biochemist

Marc-Michael Blum

Of course, it’s impossible to say who did this simply by identifying the [poison’s] chemical compound. But we can say you wouldn’t be able to create this substance in your kitchen or even in a typical university laboratory. You’d need to be able to synthesize a highly toxic material and it takes a lot of experience.

But does that automatically mean it was the intelligence services, even if it seems very likely? It’s not entirely clear. For example, there might be a chemist who used to work in a program creating such substances and he wants to sell his knowledge, and there might be people who want to use it. I agree, though, that there’s definitely a legitimate suspicion that this [substance] is from a professional lab.

You can’t just go out and buy substances like this. You need somebody with a lot of experience creating very toxic compounds. There aren’t many people in the world who can do this. Mainly, this is probably people from programs for creating chemical weapons and the specialized labs where they actually create them. So either one of these people decided to earn some money [by creating this poison] or it was one of the state-supported labs.

I was a bit shocked that it turned out to be a substance from the Novichok group — especially because I don’t understand why anyone would use it after what happened in 2018 [when the Skripals were attacked in England]. Even if it’s not the exact same compound, the class of the substance is the same. It’s certainly exotic.

If Navalny hadn’t ended up in Germany, he probably would have died and no one would have known why. So the usual argument that “this was a signal for everyone else” doesn’t really work here. It could be that it all comes down to the fact that certain people simply like this poison. Because there are cases where it doesn’t work, though maybe there are undisclosed cases where it worked well.

Was this an attempted murder? Absolutely yes. This wasn’t just a warning. These substances are so toxic that Navalny is lucky to be alive, but they absolutely wanted to kill him. When poisoned like this, there’s a very small window between being hospitalized and being killed. 

associate adjunct professor, School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science, University of California, San Diego

Zoran Radic

I don’t have the information needed to give an exact answer [about the potential involvement of Russia’s intelligence services], but I think it would be very difficult even for an experienced chemist to synthesize this type of nerve agent safely outside of a well-equipped and authorized laboratory. There’s also the possibility of the black market [for stolen substances created at authorized laboratories]. Compared to other nerve agents, “Novichok” powder can be stored relatively easily in a well-insulated container. 

One reason for using a Novichok-class substance could be that its detection protocols aren’t as well known, accepted, or widely standardized as they are for other nerve agents. And that could mean the poison wouldn’t be detected. 

Most likely, this was an attempt to cause serious harm or to kill. After all, some types of “Novichok” are among the most toxic substances humanity has ever manufactured. 

One of Novichok’s original developers

Vladimir Uglev

It’s impossible to use Novichok to “rattle” somebody. If they’d only wanted to scare Navalny, they could have done it simply with [the nervous system blockers] atropine or scopolamine. Novichok isn’t the kind of thing you use to scare someone. 

[Thinking about Navalny’s poisoning], I’ve laid awake at night, going over it again and again. Why did I rule out Novichok initially? Because Navalny showed certain signs: he became inexplicably ill, he collapsed, and he fell into a coma. That doesn’t happen with Novichok. If, for example, the substance gets on the skin, it fibrillates at the point of contact, then there’s sweating, convulsions, then involuntary defecation and urination, paralysis, and death. But there’s no coma! I’ve never once been able to speak to anyone who’s come into contact with it — it’s been fatal everywhere. After contact, people have even gone home, but they didn’t slip into comas.

If these were [the liquid forms of “Novichok”] А-230, А-232, А-234, then other people [around Navalny] would have suffered. I’ve been thinking some about the solid form: A-242. It was created primarily for submunitions. The substance was applied to these arrows that you’d fire at someone. Ten minutes later and it was all over.

A-242 is a solid substance. Its melting point is 95–96 degrees Celsius [about 204 degrees Fahrenheit]. Therefore, if scattered on a tabletop, it will have no effect. At the same time, A-242 is highly soluble in water. Imagine that an A-242 solution was applied to Navalny’s clothes and they added something like [the sedative] clonidine. The clonidine would manifest first: Alexey would fall into a coma, and signs of A-242 poisoning would be secondary by then. Members of his entourage and the paramedics might not see them at all. 

I myself was once exposed to A-242: I was recrystallizing the substance in a solvent when it boiled over and splashed onto my hand. So I dunked my hand in hydrochloric acid and held it there, before washing it under the tap and treating it with a sanitary solution. Still, for years to come, my hand would sweat and serious effects remained. 

In any case, this substance was made in a lab. It’s possible that [the poisoners] may have used old supplies — maybe even reserves that I created myself. 

Meduza: Does the use of a Novichok-class nerve agent mean the involvement of Russia’s intelligence community?

Well, [Navalny] didn’t stumble upon it himself like that madam in Amesbury. Navalny was investigating local municipal deputies [in Siberia] — maybe they manufactured the substance or got it somewhere? As they say in Shrek: “Like that’s ever going to happen. What a load of sh—.”

Interviews by Farida Rustamova and Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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