The head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ahmet Uzumcu, has confirmed that the nerve agent used in the Salisbury attack was of high purity, persistence and would not be resistant to weather conditions. This confirms the British view that this is a military grade nerve agent called Novichok, which is/was only made at the secret and closed military town Shikhany in central Russia.

Mysteriously, but not unexpectedly we learn that the Shikhany laboratories, whence the Novichoks came in central Russia, have recently been bulldozed flat.  The only plausible explanation of destroying this site seems to be an admission of guilt and designed to prevent the OPCW investigation coming to a conclusive finding.

The OPCW suggests the Shikhany project is probably an offensive programme rather than just research, which is allowable with amounts of agent less than 5mgs.  Russia appears to have used significantly more in this botched assassination attempt.  If this is an offensive programme, as we suspect, it has huge implications for NATO, as our chemical defence capabilities are not currently up to detecting Novichoks and our medical counter-measures require work.

It would appear the UK’s Porton Down research centre did not have any ‘antidote’ to Novichoks, and the Skripols survived through very good luck, the excellence of the NHS  staff at Salisbury hospital, and some pretty amazing work by Porton Down scientists.  Thankfully the Skripals and the police officer DS Bailey appear on their way to recovery.

The Russians, no doubt, will have seen how effective chemical weapons have been in Syria when used by the Syrian military, especially when fighting in built-up areas.  There are compelling reports from reliable sources that the Syrian Army is even using the deadly nerve agent Sarin in hand grenades, to attack people hiding in air raid shelters and tunnels.

The use of chemical weapons was key to break the 4-year siege of Aleppo in 2016 and the 7-year siege of Ghouta just last month. This low-level use of chemical weapons has never been envisaged by NATO, to the best of my knowledge, and the prospect of Russia using Novichoks in this fashion in any East-West confrontation is extremely worrying.  We know at the moment we cannot readily detect Novichoks and we do not have an antidote, but we believe our general service personal protection equipment is up to the task.  If Novichoks

Logo of US Army’s Edgewood Research Centre.

could be used for chemical weapons, in other words, to deny ground or kill many people quickly, this ‘super’ WMD many thousands of times more potent than its predecessors, really could be the weapon of Armageddon.

No doubt the UK MoD and US DoD are now working out how to nullify this ‘super’ WMD, hitherto undeclared by the Russians.  No doubt also, Porton Down and Edgewood, the US equivalent, will be ‘burning the midnight oil’ to find antidotes, counter-measures, detectors and checking personal protective equipment, and they will undoubtedly prevail.

Many think this terrible episode will ratchet up the new ‘Cold War’ to greater levels, I take a different view.  Conventionally, militarily, NATO and the US vastly over match Russian capabilities; you only have to see how frequently the latest and most advanced Russian jets crash for technical reasons in Syria.  So it is no surprise to me, and many others I expect, that Russia looks to develop ‘asymmetric’ capabilities to over-match the West.  They have done this spectacularly well with Novichoks, but now we know all about them, we will quickly produce counter-measures to nullify their advantage, and hopefully defuse the situation and persuade Putin that de-escalation is most advantageous to all.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE is a former Commander UK & NATO Chemical Defence Force.

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4 Comments on "Countering Novichok."

  1. Peter Kennedy | 23rd May 2018 at 7:45 pm | Reply

    I have zero experience of chemical weapons and this whole story has me curious. It’s my understanding that even a fraction of a gramme of these weapons is lethal and a substantial amount was found at the home of the victim.

    So how did he and his daughter survive?

  2. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon | 24th May 2018 at 8:09 am | Reply

    Mainly luck – Sergei probably inadvertently decontaminated himself by wiping the novichok jell on his trousers or even washing his hands. CBRN trained medics were on duty at Salisbury hospital who called it as a nerve agent – the world’s CBRN expertise was on hand at Porton Down a stones throw from Salisbury hospital – if this happened anywhere else they would have surely died and if you ran this scenario 10 times they would probably die 9 out of 10.

  3. It is always “potentially lethal.” Talking to my sister who is a biochemist, though in no way a nerve agent specialist, there is always a kind of luck of the draw when it comes to how a toxin of any sort spreads through the body. Obviously, your physical strength plays a part here too – younger, stronger people will always have more chance against anything, which would explain why the daughter recovered fastest.

    However, it has not been without cost, even to her. When you look carefully at the video posted by Reuters yesterday, aside from the scar on her neck where she would have had a breathing tube inserted, she has lost weight and looks shattered beneath the makeup. She has been through hell and back physically.

    And the emotional strain? She says she wants to one day go home to Russia. But can she? The Russians probably wouldn’t dare touch her now, but they may well use her. And that could make her life a misery of conflict. In a way, she is in a worse position to her father, I think. He signed up for this crazy life – she didn’t.

  4. Hamish,

    Despite the rhetoric and lies kicking around everywhere, I am not completely convinced that this use of Novichok ushers in a new era. Rather, I think it just emphasises something that has been happening since the fall of the Soviet Block – the resurgence of Russia, but the Russia of the Tsars, not of Lenin.

    The cold war was a war of ideology more than anything else, with the differences painted bright on the Berlin Wall.

    But the differences now are not as clear-cut. Putin is playing at dictatorship while building a capitalist economy. That sounds more like a monarchy to me. If that is so, then there is no ideological battle, but rather a more traditional “my dog is bigger than your dog” battle.

    How a chemical WMD fits into that is confusing. I am not sure I see a place for them in a wider sense than the tragedies in Syria and with the Skripals. I can’t see how they would be used. It is far more effective to undermine an economy in some way – for instance with attacks on IT infrastructure.

    My late father worked directly for Slim in India, handling his intelligence communications under Ultra. I didn’t know what he did in the war till the mid-70s; he couldn’t tell us. But later, he said that knowledge and communications were the weakest links in the war for all sides. If the Germans and Japanese had either kept Enigma better hidden or pulled the same trick on us, we would have lost. Even the strength of the Americans wouldn’t have changed that. We beat them because we undermined their communications and so their internal intelligence.

    That is still true today. Chemical weapons have been banned in one way or another since the 17th Century. Back then they banned poisoned projectiles. But like all the other chemical weapons treaties, they have been ignored in one way or another by all countries, including us in the West.

    And yet, as far as I know, chemical weapons, however horrific, have not changed the outcome of any war. It has been other factors – often just weight of numbers.

    The political shouting will continue, but although I think the boffins will look for antidotes and counter-measures, the real money will go towards the bigger threats like cyber warfare. I suspect that the Russians, especially, will also believe that this would be a better strike than chemical weapons. Smaller states might be more tempted towards chemicals, I suppose.

    Sorry, that was very rambly – but I am not sure I know what I am talking about!

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