Novichok between opinion and fact – Part 1: Deconstruction of the Russian denial
Since the assassination attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal with a nerve agent now just over one month ago, so much has been written about ‘Novichok’; so much has been opined about what ‘Novichok’ is meant to be (if it exists at all); and so much smoke has been spewed about what the identification of ‘Novichok’ suggests about culprits. This blog posting is the first of several to look into a specific aspect of the discussions concerning Novichok in the hope of clarifying where certain positions come from and what factual knowledge exists about this group of nerve agents.
Facts have been scarce. In fact, as a member of the public with long-time interest in chemical and biological weapons, I know very little about what took place in Salisbury on 4 March. I still have to see the first statement from British authorities—government officials, police, scientists at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down—in what form the Novichok agent was delivered. Was it a liquid? A solid in powdered form? A binary concoction? Delivered in a gel or ointment? Anything else?
‘Novichok’ as we know the family of nerve agents today was researched, developed, produced and field-tested in sizeable quantities in the Soviet Union and at least during the early years of Russia as an independent state. Little else beyond this basic information given by some of the chemists involved in the armament programme is available. Those researchers are not always in agreement with each other, especially as regards the skill levels required to synthesise the agent.
Meanwhile, government officials from both the United Kingdom and the Russian federation have launched a war of hyperbole. London overstated the nature and quality of evidence from forensic chemistry; Moscow, amid a broad smoke-and-mirrors campaign, used the exaggerations to poke holes in the British narrative. Just like with allegations of chemical weapon (CW) use in Syria, Russia has released a barrage of denials concerning the assassination attempt in the UK through disaffirmation of any involvement, construction of spurious logic and citation of any ‘expert’ willing to entertain conspiracy theories. It furthermore rejects any outcome unfavourable to its world view and questions procedures and methodologies applied by investigative bodies. Moscow, however, never supplies any physical evidence in support of its claims.
Yet, over the din there are two steadfast Russian positions: (1) Russia is not responsible for the Soviet Union’s actions, and (2) CW declarations concern only ‘produced’ toxic chemicals for use in warfare. In the specific context of the CWC, it places the three Schedules central to the prohibitory regime.
Back in the USSR: Not for Russia
On 26 December 1991 the Soviet Union dissolved into 15 independent republics. Russia assumed the international legal obligations of the former superpower and inherited its non-conventional weapon arsenals. Some weaponry had to be transferred back to Russia from the other republics. With considerable Western assistance, former weapon production installations were converted or destroyed, and arsenals eliminated.
Nevertheless, Western countries repeatedly voiced concerns about Russia’s continuation of offensive chemical and biological weapon programmes. Despite a Presidential Decree issued by Boris Yeltsin in April 1992, Western suspicions of activities in violation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) did not fade. As I wrote in the 1997 edition of the SIPRI Yearbook, Russia systematically denied those accusations. In a closed session of the Fourth Review Conference of the BTWC (in which I had stumbled unaware the session was private) its ambassador declared formally that the Russian Federation had never produced nor stockpiled such weapons and abides by all treaty provisions (SIPRI Yearbook 1997, p. 465, fn. 202).
In an interview on 17 March 2018, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Alexander Shulgin similarly asserted that ‘there has never been any programme under the group name “novichok” in the Russian Federation. Back to 1992, Russia stopped all the activities in the area of military chemistry’.
Sputnik News likewise took issue with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg for confusing Russia with the Soviet Union when discussing the Skripal case:
During the press conference, Stoltenberg mentioned that the poisonous substance, Novichok, was developed by Russia, although it was created more than 30 years ago in the Soviet Union.
It is unclear if the confusion between Russia and the Soviet Union was intentional, but the conflation is alarming, especially as it comes from the head of the Alliance. Moreover, the nerve agent could be recreated elsewhere. Nevertheless, it was implied that Russia’s culpability was evident.
During my interview with the Russian television station RT broadcast on 22 March (see below), I had to explain that during the cold war most people in the West used USSR and Russia interchangeably and that mentions of Russia today could actually refer to the Soviet Union depending on the specific historical context. Explaining that the Russia accepted financial support from the USA and Europe to destroy Soviet-era CW and installations that Russia never had, can actually baffle some Russians.
Yet, as noted before, the Novichok programme continued at least into the early years of the Russian Federation. Russian officials do not believe that such activities violated any international agreements, nor do they think that they should declare the agents. The denials stand in light of Russia’s interpretation of international obligations.
Production, nothing but production
Before the CWC Russia signed two documents with the USA, under which both states would exchange data about their respective CW arsenals.
The Memorandum of Understanding Between the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Government of the United States of America Regarding a Bilateral Verification Experiment and Data Exchange Related to Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (signed at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on 23 September 1989) called for detailed information exchanges on weapon holdings and storage and production facilities. The document foresaw two phases. During the 2nd phase, both parties were expected to provide much higher detail and allow more intrusive onsite inspections. In addition, they were also supposed to supply data pertaining to CW capabilities, which included inter alia (emphasis added):
the precise location, nature and general scope of activities of any facility or establishment designed, constructed or used since 1 January 1946 for development of chemical weapons, inter alia, laboratories and test and evaluation sites.
Ten months later the two countries signed the Agreement Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on Destruction and Non-production of Chemical Weapons and on Measures to Facilitate the Multilateral Convention on Banning Chemical Weapons (Washington, DC, 1 June 1990) to facilitate the final phase of the negotiation of the CWC. Under this Bilateral Destruction Agreement (BDA), they committed themselves to the verified destruction of CW and production facilities. Under Article III they would also cease the ‘production of chemical weapons’. The word ‘development’ only featured in reference to the future CWC in the main text and in the annexed Wyoming Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). The word ‘research’ appeared nowhere.
Because of the turmoil after the breakup of the USSR, the (scaled-down) second phase of the MoU only took place in the spring of 1994. As is evident from a Senate report on US capabilities to monitor compliance with the CWC on 30 September 1994, considerable concerns were expressed about ‘lack of forthrightness in Russia’s recent Wyoming MoU Phase II data declarations and the accusations of dissident scientists suggest that Russia may be trying to maintain an offensive CW capability’ (p. 17). The latter part of the sentence is a clear reference to the Novichok revelations.
Jonathan Tucker (War of Nerves, Pantheon Books, New York, 2006, p. 323) writes that the Russians admitted to research on the new class of Novichok agents. However, they maintained that ‘the Wyoming MoU and the BDA required declaring only stockpiled weapons, not small amounts of agent produced for development and testing purposes’.
This interpretation seems to conflict with the above-cited paragraph 7 of the 2nd phase provisions in the Wyoming MoU. Furthermore, in view of suggestions by the former Soviet/Russian scientist involved in the Novichok programme (Table 2, p. 25) that experimental quantities were produced in the range of tens of tonnes, there does not seem to be a clear-cut line between small-scale, pilot-plant and large-scale production. In other words, even the concept of ‘production’ becomes flexible in its interpretation; a key associate element being ‘stockpiled’.
Gorbachev and the end of CW production
Rewind several years. On 10 April 1987, Michael Gorbachev, then General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, held a major speech in Prague that, among other things, addressed social reform and arms reductions. He also announced the termination of CW production (‘Excerpts of Gorbachev’s Speech in Prague’, Associated Press, 10 April 1987, via Nexis.com):
And another issue of major significance: a ban on chemical weapons. We have consistently advocated early elaboration, this year, of an appropriate international convention, and active negotiations on that score.
I can inform you that the Soviet Union has terminated the production of chemical weapons. The other countries of the Warsaw treaty organization are known to have never produced them and never had them on their territory.
The USSR does not have chemical weapons outside its borders. As far as stocks of chemical weapons are concerned, I would like to inform you that we are constructing a special plant to destroy them. With such a plant operational we would be able to rapidly proceed to chemical disarmament following an international convention.
The speech opened the gates to one of the Soviet Union’s largest and oldest CW facilities, the Central Military Testing Site near Shikhany in the Saratov Oblast. Announced in August, the visit by international diplomats negotiating the CWC, national experts and some journalists took place early in October of the same year. The Soviets present a variety of munitions and gave general information on their warfare agents and holdings. Many participants from Europe, the USA and Australia expressed scepticism about the level of transparency their hosts had generated. Many questions the Soviets deflected or refused to answer. In hindsight, however, there was one incident during the press conference that is revealing with respect to the Novichok controversy. As described in the Washington Post (Celestine Bohlen, ‘Soviets Allow Experts to Tour Chemical Weapons Facility’, 5 October 1987, via Nexis.com), Lt. Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich told attendants that some ‘modernised types’ of standard CW had not been shown. He stressed, however, that the Soviet Union had no weapons that other countries did not have.
At that time the Novichok development programme (or perhaps more accurately, the Foliant programme) was advancing steadily. The toxicants were not under production; they were not being stockpiled. The semantic circumscription of some key concepts that were to become part of the later CWC already existed.
General Purpose Criterion versus Schedules
Since 1994, before the CWC’s entry into force, I have heard several times Russian Ambassadors and other senior officials argue the primacy of the three Schedules over the so-called General Purpose Criterion. As the Annex on Chemicals, Part B clearly states, the three lists with toxic chemicals and their precursors are intended to support the application of the treaty’s verification measures. In case of any confusion, it adds that ‘these Schedules do not constitute a definition of chemical weapons’. That definition is the subject of Article II, 1(a):
Toxic chemicals and their precursors, except where intended for purposes not prohibited under this Convention, as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes.
It captures all toxic chemicals (past, present and future), meaning that by default the CWC bans all use of any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals (Article II, 2), except if intended for one of the four purposes not prohibited under the convention (Article II, 9). The systematic use of the negative phrase ‘purposes not prohibited’ underscores the ban’s default position. For this reason, Syria’s use of chlorine—an unlisted toxic chemical with worldwide industrial and commercial application—constitutes a material breach of the general obligation never under any circumstances to use chemical weapons (Article I, 1(b)).
Novichok and its precursors, despite their being clearly a part of a nerve agent programme, are also not listed in the Schedules. The development programme became known only after the conclusion of the CWC negotiations, so diplomats did not have the necessary information to consider the Novichok family of agents and their respective precursors. Since then, as noted above, Russian officials have declined to provide more formal data. Consequently, States Parties have not been able to update the Schedules.
As Russia seems to hold the position that it does not have to declare anything not listed in the Schedules, it remains in a position to deny the existence of Novichok and its past involvement in its development.
The situation is not unlike the one parties to the CWC faced after Russian special security forces resorted to the use of carfentanyl to overcome armed Chechen insurgents during the hostage crises in the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow in October 2002. While not listed in any of the Schedules, the so-called incapacitating agent (which proved rather lethal) points to an operational capacity for armed forces. The refusal by authorities to disclose the nature of the agent to medical personnel contributed to the more than 200 fatalities among theatre goers.
In the public discussions about whether a nerve agent of the Novichok family was deployed in the assassination attempt on the Skripals, whether the Novichok existed at all, and whether their development can be attributed to Russia, it is important to realise that Moscow utilises core terms in a specific semantic framework and interprets certain provisions of the CWC in ways not always consistent with their utilisation in the West.
Whether such usage and interpretation are correct is not the point of the present blog posting.
Indeed, the more substantive arguments advanced by Russian officials need to be deconstructed within their reference framework. Their denials do not necessarily mean that Novichoks never existed; they may merely mean that under Soviet/Russian understandings, they were never viewed as CWs as they had not been produced (however flexible that word might be) and stockpiled. No declaration needed; no relevancy to the CWC, especially as they and their precursors do not feature in the Schedules.