The nerve agent Novichok was allegedly used in a recent assassination attempt against a Russian opposition leader. Image: AFP Forum/Getty

Poisoning is a method of killing that dates back to antiquity, but the alleged Kremlin deployment of chemical weapons to silence opponents via assassination has carried the practice into the 21st century.

Arguably the most infamous of such weapons in current circulation is Novichok – used, most recently, against Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Though the name has a grim ring to the ear when spoken in English, in Russian it is bland and innocuous: it literally means “newbie” or “newcomer.” But there is nothing innocuous about its effects, which are the stuff of nightmares.

Novichok is in the top tier of a class of chemical weapons known as nerve agents, which were discovered during research into pesticides in the 1930s. These ultra-toxic substances prevent the nerves from working with potentially deadly effects: the body’s various systems simply stop functioning.

Russian officials, in maximum bluster mode, have denied that any such poison was developed in their country. However, those statements are contradicted by the testimonies of several former Soviet scientists who worked for a top-secret chemical weapon program in the last years of the Cold War – one of whom spoke to Asia Times. 

Toxic allegations

On August 20, Navalny suddenly fell desperately ill during an internal flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow. After a brief hospitalization in the Siberian city of Omsk, he was emergency-evacuated to Germany where he spent weeks in an induced coma fighting for his life.

Navalny, a strident critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, survived the drastic treatment and is gradually recovering from the poisoning. 

According to German armed forces scientists, Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok-type nerve agent. That analysis was independently confirmed by Swedish and French lab findings. 

As reported by Russian independent news media Proekt, traces of the poison were detected on a water bottle which was left by Navalny in his hotel room in Tomsk and later brought to Germany by his colleagues. 

A poster with a picture of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny with the headline ‘poisoned’ is seen outside the Russian embassy on Unter den Linden in Berlin during an anti-government protest on September 23, 2020. Photo: AFP/Odd Anderson

Despite German authorities’ demands for Moscow to investigate the incident, no criminal case has been opened so far in Russia. On the contrary, according to the Russian doctors who treated Navalny right after the incident, no trace of poisonous substances was found. 

Poison has been used as a tool for suicide – Socrates, Cleopatra and Hitler all killed themselves in this manner – for centuries.

And well before Novichok entered the vocabulary of newspaper readers and thriller aficionados, a wide range of data suggests that the Soviet Union, Russia, and their allies have for decades deployed a range of toxic weapons.

In 1978, Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was assassinated in London by an agent using a sharp-tipped umbrella which delivered a tiny pellet containing ricin, a natural poison, into Markov’s leg. A KGB defector later revealed that the hit had been engineered by the KGB.

In 2002, Saudi Jihadi commander Ibn al-Khattab died after exposure to a letter coated with nerve agent, reportedly delivered by an agent working for the Russia Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

In the same year, in response to the terrorist capture of a Moscow theater in 2002, Russian special forces wiped out 40 kidnappers when they pumped a chemical agent into the building’s ventilation system.  However, 133 hostages also died.

And in London in 2006, Russian defector, former FSB agent and outspoken Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko died a slow death after drinking tea in which radioactive substances were subsequently identified. A British investigation pointed the finger at the FSB.

Enter Novichok

It was in 2018 that Novichok gained worldwide notoriety when it was used to poison Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the British town of Salisbury.

Soon after, a British woman who accidentally came into contact with the bottle used to contain the poison fell severely ill and died.  

According to British authorities, Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, was behind the poisoning. The Skripals, after extensive emergency treatment, eventually recovered. They now reportedly live in secrecy, under secret identities. 

Moscow denied any involvement in the poisoning, but those denials were shot full of holes after the British government released images of two suspects. An under-pressure Moscow produced the two suspects for a TV interview, during which they claimed to be tourists with a special interest in Salisbury Cathedral.

The screen with an image of suspected of the poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, people presented as Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov during their interview to a Russian journalist, Photo by Stringer/NurPhoto

Even pro-Kremlin media were unconvinced by the performance. Subsequently, investigative open-source websites and independent Russian media identified the two suspects as senior GRU officers.

In response to British accusations over the Skripals’ poisoning, Russian officials said all Soviet chemical weapon programs were halted in 1992 and all remaining stockpiles from the programs were destroyed by 2017, in full accordance with the Convention on Chemical Weapons. 

Sergey Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, even claimed that no chemical weapon under the name “Novichok” was ever developed in Russia or the Soviet Union.

Those statements contrast sharply with the testimonies of former Soviet scientists who participated in the development of nerve agents. 

Vil Mirzayanov, an ex-Soviet chemist turned whistleblower, revealed that the code name “Novichok” refers to a class of military-grade nerve agents developed from the 1970s until the early 1990s under the top-secret “Foliant” program.

The agents, which Mirzayanov was in charge of testing, were manufactured at GosNIIOKhT, a secret laboratory in Shikhany, a city in southwest Russia. The goal of the program was to develop chemical weapons that would counter – or deter – those used by NATO countries. 

In the early 1990s, Mirzayanov revealed that the secret chemical weapons program was still on-going, despite the Soviet government’s repeated pledges that it was getting rid of chemical weapons. 

After leaking information to the US press, Mirzayanov was arrested for divulging state secrets –  which was widely interpreted as Russia’s involuntary admission that such programs did, in fact, exist.

After his release, Mirzayanov emigrated to the US where he published the chemical formula of the Novichok family of nerve agents in his 2008 book State Secret: An Insider’s Chronicle of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program. 

The molecular structure of the Russian nerve agent, Novichok. Photo: AFP

A subsequent testimony was equally shocking, but for different reasons.

Scientist Leonid Rink, who claimed to have been working for the GosNIIOKhT laboratory, revealed that he had sold several batches of Novichok nerve agents in the early 1990s to people linked with criminal organizations.

Rink testified on the matter during a closed-door trial over the murder of Russian banker Ivan Kivelidi, who was poisoned by a nerve agent applied to his office phone in 1995.

The killer, one of Kiveli’s business partners, had allegedly received one of Rink’s poison batches via intermediaries. 

That was the first documented case of Novichok being used for an assassination

Rink’s testimony, while shocking, is hardly surprising.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a range of Russian arms programs and facilities, including those related to chemical weapons, were left stranded – underfunded, in a state of disarray and with little state oversight. 

From military arm to assassins’ tool

In liquid, vapor and ultra-fine powder form, Novichok-type nerve agents can be absorbed by inhalation or skin absorption. They affect the central nervous system, causing muscle spasms which kill the victim via suffocation or heart failure. Even a few milligrams can lead to severe poisoning. 

“In terms of combat effectiveness, Novichok nerve agents are approximately four times more powerful than the American VX,” Vladimir Uglev, another scientist who took part in the development of Novichok, told Asia Times in a telephone interview.

VX is a nerve agent that was widely produced by the United States during the Cold War.

According to the chemist, who claims to have worked at the GosNIIOKhT secret laboratory for over 20 years, Novichok-type nerve agents were designed to be applied as a coating on small-arms ammunition, and could also be deployed by the warheads of medium and long-range missiles. 

“After detonating, the missile would release thousands of poisoned shrapnel and kill any living thing in the targeted area,” Uglev said. 

Given the extremely high toxicity of Novichok, experts are surprised that Navalny survived the attack. Some concluded that the poisoning was designed to be a warning to deter the opposition leader and his allies, rather than an actual hit. 

Experts, however, differ. 

“This was certainly an attempt to kill him,” said biochemist Marc-Michael Blum, who used to lead a laboratory at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and assisted in the investigation of the Skripals’ poisoning in 2018.

According to Blum, dosing down Novichok with the aim of creating a dangerous but not fatal outcome is extremely difficult. 

“The window between the dose where you start to have symptoms of poisoning, and where you die, is extremely narrow with these nerve agents,” Blum told Asia Times

So why did such a supposedly deadly nerve agent fail to kill Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny?

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, surrounded by his family, recovers from a Novichok attack in a Berlin hospital. Photo: AFP

According to Uglev, the survival of Navalny, Skripal and his daughter – who was likely collateral damage – can be ascribed to a combination of remarkable luck and the assassins’ sloppiness. 

“It seemed there was not enough of the substance to cause instant death,” Uglev told Asia Times.

There is also disagreement over the skill level required to carry out an assassination using Novichok.

German newspaper Die Zeit claimed that only Russian intelligence could have carried out the poisoning, since simple criminals would not have the necessary resources to synthesize the Novichok.

Pro-Kremlin media, on the other hand, have been pushing a number of alternative theories. One is that foreign actors poisoned Navalny to put the blame on Moscow. That theory looks dubious given that Navalny was under constant surveillance by Russian secret services. 

Whoever was behind the attack, Blum points out, only highly skilled chemists would be capable of creating such substances – and only with a properly equipped laboratory.

“A clandestine basement drug lab would not be sufficient,” the scientist said. 

It is possible that Navalny was poisoned with some of the Novichok doses that were allegedly stolen from the secret GosNIIOKhT laboratory during the 1990s.

But Blum suggests that someone, somewhere, is still producing Novichok.  

“Stability is a huge issue,” he said. “Degradation is a problem all chemical weapons programs have to deal with.”