Novichok between opinion and fact – Part 2: When alternative facts become blatant untruths

On 18 April 2018 the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) held its 59th meeting, which was wholly dedicated to the assassination attempt with a nerve agent of the Novichok family. The Technical Secretariat presented its classified full ‘Report on Activities Carried out in Support of a Request for Technical Assistance by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Technical Assistance Visit TAV/02/18)’. A summary released by the Technical Secretariat on 12 April, although lacking in detail, stated that:

  • Two OPCW designated laboratories confirmed that the three hospitalised individuals had been exposed to a toxic chemical;
  • Another two OPCW designated laboratories confirmed the presence of the toxic chemical in environmental samples;
  • The results confirmed the UK’s findings relating to the identity of the toxic chemical; and
  • The TAV noted the high purity of the agent because of the almost complete absence of impurities.

Russia’s unprecedented revelation of the identity of a designated laboratory in an investigation

Prior to the Executive Council meeting Russia caused an uproar when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly identified one of the designated laboratories involved in the analysis of samples (Spiez laboratory, Switzerland). In his address to the Assembly on Foreign and Defence Policy on 14 April, he also confirmed the identification of Substance A-234 (a Novichok agent) and furthermore claimed (from Russian via Google Translate):

Based on the results of the examination, the traces of the toxic chemical BZ and its precursors belonging to the chemical weapons of the second category in accordance with the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are found in the samples. BZ is a nerve agent temporarily disabling a person, psycho-toxic effect is achieved in 30-60 minutes and lasts up to four days.

This recipe was in the arsenal of the US Army, Great Britain and other NATO countries, there were no developments or accumulations of these chemical compounds in the Soviet Union and Russia.

The statement as such contains two errors.

First, BZ (a NATO code for 3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate, often pronounced ‘buzz’) is not a nerve agent but a psychoactive compound. It was first developed in Switzerland early in the 1950s and then further explored by the United States as an incapacitant for military use. However, the exposed person’s unpredictable behaviour meant that its utility as a warfare agent on the battlefield would have been limited. I verified the reference to ‘nerve agent’ for possible automatic mistranslation from, because exposure does affect the nervous system, as is suggested in the remainder of the sentence. Therefore, I cannot exclude a deliberate attempt at sowing confusion, more so as the BZ narrative was picked up by Russian media, officials and social media trolls to cast doubt on the analyses.

Second, the Soviet Union/Russia have (had) a variant of the agent, known as Substance 78. In the aftermath of the 2002 Moscow theatre siege, many experts initially attributed the high death toll among hostages to the agent and questioned whether Russia was not in breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention. (See: Gary D. Solis, The Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War, Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp. 778–79. Also: The Guardian, 28 October 2002.)

The identification of Spiez as one of the designated laboratories in the investigation was no surprise. In replying to press queries whether the country was like other European countries considering diplomatic sanction against Moscow, the Swiss Foreign Ministry had all but identified the laboratory when it stated on 27 March that it was awaiting the results of ongoing investigations into the poisoning of a Russian spy in the UK before drawing any conclusions. Lavrov’s disclosure nevertheless put the Spiez laboratory in an uncomfortable position of not being able to confirm or deny the claims. Russian media cited Dr Andreas Bucher, Head of Strategy and Communication:

I’m sorry, we cannot have any statement on that, because as you are aware we are a designated laboratory of the OPCW, and the OPCW has rejected the Russian request for making public the involved designated laboratories in this Salisbury investigation. And we are contractually bound to the OPCW for confidentiality. So, the only institution who could confirm what Mister Lavrov was saying on the weekend is the OPCW. We cannot say or confirm or deny anything.

Sharp rebuke

The unprecedented disclosure of the OPCW’s internal decision-making process and findings by Russia’s Foreign Minister drew an unusually sharp rebuke from the organisation’s Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü. In his opening statement to the Executive Council meeting on 18 April, he said:

I wish to take this opportunity to emphasise the policy followed by the Secretariat with regards to public statements made by official s of individual States Parties. The Secretariat will not respond publicly to such statements even if these are critical of the OPCW’s work. I do not think it is in the interest of the Organisation that the Secretariat gets involved in public discussions with States Parties. We will continue to use the Executive Council meetings or briefings to inform the States Parties about our activities and to clarify certain points which need to be addressed.

In the closing statement (appended to the on-line document with the opening statement), he became much more specific:

As it was clearly shown in the detailed and technical presentation, we should not have an iota of doubt on the reliability of the system of the OPCW Designated Laboratories. The Labs were able to confirm the id entity of the chemical by applying existing, well-established procedures. There was no other chemical that was identified by the Labs. The precursor of BZ that is referred to in the public statements, commonly known as 3Q, was contained in the control sample prepared by the OPCW Lab in accordance with the existing quality control procedures. Otherwise it has nothing to do with the samples collected by the OPCW Team in Salisbury. This chemical was reported back to the OPCW by the two designated Labs and the findings are duly reflected in the report.

I should like to mention here that in accordance with the established practice the Secretariat does not share the full reports of the analysis of the samples that it receives from the designated Labs with the States Parties. This practice is aimed at protecting the identity of the Labs which conduct off-site analysis of samples.

Standing up for independence and integrity

In both the investigations into alleged chemical weapon (CW) use in Syria and the assassination attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, Russia has tried and still tries to challenge the integrity of the OPCW’s investigative procedures (even though it has approved them when they were developed or updated).

While the Technical Secretariat has little leverage over the political debates animating OPCW members, it clearly will not stand for a direct assault on its integrity and the quality of its investigative protocols and scientific analysis.

Previous commentaries on the Novichok assassination attempt

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About JP Zanders

Jean Pascal Zanders (Belgium) has worked on questions of chemical and biological weapon (CBW) armament and disarmament since 1986. He was CBW Project Leader at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project and Senior Research Fellow responsible for disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation questions at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He now owns and runs The Trench.