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
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.