The attack on former spy Sergei Skripal thrust the nerve agent Novichok into the spotlight. For many, it was the first time they had heard of the poison, but it has long been a bone of contention between Moscow and the West.
No problem, says Andrew Weber, I can show you the pictures. The weapons expert, formerly a high-ranking official in the U.S. Defense Department, is sitting in a Berlin hotel. He swipes through his smartphone and quickly finds the photos.
One image depicts a reactor constructed of metal, inside of which the deadly chemical agent was produced. Another shows devices lined up in the basement that look not unlike gas masks designed for dogs. Still another is of an elongated, four-story complex that is light beige in color. The area around the structure is undeveloped and there is trash and scrap metal strewn on the ground.
The place documented by the photographs is the site where Soviet researchers produced one of the most lethal nerve agents in the history of mankind. Novichok was developed in the Soviet Union, and after its collapse in 1991, Russia also worked with the stuff. Pretty much everyone who comes into contact with it dies. Victims start foaming at the mouth, then they vomit, their muscles stop working and, finally, their hearts stop.
Weber had to put on a protective suit before he was allowed to enter the building. The research institute is located in a former Soviet military compound in the provincial Uzbek city of Nukus. After the Russians vacated the facility in 1992, they refused to give concerned Uzbek officials any information about its deadly legacy. The Uzbeks eventually turned to Washington for help.
“Everything was sealed off and it was total chaos inside, with chemicals lying everywhere,” Weber recalls. The Americans found no Novichok there, he says, but they did find substances created through the compound’s degradation. It took months to decontaminate the premises.
At the time, Novichok (Russian for “newcomer”) was only known to experts. But ever sincethe attack on former British-Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury a few weeks ago, the nerve agent has been world famous. British investigators found traces of the toxin in blood samples taken from the Skripals and at locations where the father and daughter had been.
The West accuses Russia of responsibility for the attack and has expelled more than 100 Russian diplomats and intelligence officials from major capitals like Washington, London and Berlin. In March, U.S. President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel all called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to “provide full and complete disclosure” on the Russian Novichok program.
There is nothing to disclose, Putin responded, and retaliated by ejecting a large number of Western representatives from Russia. The Russian ambassador in London said: “We did not produce and didn’t store Novichok.”
The international community has been observing the dispute with astonishment and a good measure of anxiety. But what hardly anyone knows is that the current conflict has a long history, and Russia and the West have been wrangling over Novichok for decades.
Now, DER SPIEGEL has reconstructed the nerve agent’s history. To do so, it evaluated U.S. documents from the archives of the WikiLeaks whistleblowing platform and spoke with former diplomats, intelligence officials and chemical weapons experts. Most of these sources insisted on anonymity. The story that was pieced together from these papers and accounts is symptomatic of the decline in relations between Russia and the West. It’s about dashed expectations — on both sides.
“The Russians have repeatedly lied to us about the Novichok program,” says Weber. For many years, diplomats, intelligence officials and politicians in Berlin, Washington and London largely accepted Moscow’s inscrutable approach without too much complaint. They hoped that, as McDonald’s spread across Russia and democracy took root, problems like Novichok would disappear, says British Rear Admiral John Gower, who is an expert on chemical weapons.
But the Russians were also apparently disenchanted. Putin’s generation, which grew up in the Soviet Union, had believed that after the collapse of the communist empire, the West would have no objections to Russia behaving like a ruthless superpower.
Senior Russian diplomat Anatoly Antonov, a former department head in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, later, the deputy minister of defense, complained in 2006: “You have to decide whether we are partners or whether you’re a superpower and we’re from Africa.” Russia is not as weak as it was 10 years ago, he added, “but you are treating us like Russia were Mali or Burundi.” He said: “We are not the students, and you are not professors. We are equals.”
Today, Antonov is the Russian ambassador in Washington and is on the EU sanctions list. During the 2000s, he was tasked with paving the way for Russia to enter the so-called Australia Group, an informal forum of primarily Western countries that coordinates its export policies to ensure that they do not contribute to the spread of chemical weapons. Membership is tantamount to a stamp of approval; countries belonging to the group are considered one of the good guys.
But the secretiveness surrounding the nerve agent gave Moscow the reputation among the Americans, the British and the Canadians of being “uncooperative” when it came to chemical weapons. Allowing them into the Australia Group would have been like letting the fox guard the hen house, says a former Berlin diplomat today.
His Russian counterparts, though, saw acceptance into the group as a major bone of contention, on par with the conflict over the eastward expansion of NATO and the American missile defense system in Eastern Europe. If the Russians were allowed to participate in the Australia Group, said Antonov, it “would signal that the Cold War was really over.” But Russia was rebuffed.
A New Generation of Chemical Weapons
Novichok was a product of the arms race of the 1970s. The Americans held an initial lead in state-of-the-art chemical weapons, but the Soviets were determined to make up ground, so they developed a new generation of chemical weapons that were many times more hazardous than any known agents.
The Novichok program continued even after Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev promised the world in 1987 that he would put a stop to Soviet chemical weapons production. Shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate secretly bestowed some of those overseeing the Novichok program with the coveted Lenin Prize, one of the country’s highest awards.
And the West? It merely continued keeping an eye on the program and remained silent. Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western spies knew about the ghastly chemical agent. But intelligence officials wanted to protect their sources, and all documents on Novichok were classified as top secret. The intelligence community also did not believe that the new political leadership actually backed the military brass that unswervingly continued to pursue the development of Novichok. As one agent recalls, nobody wanted to “embarrass” Gorbachev and his successor Boris Yeltsin.
At the time, Russia and the West were meeting at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to negotiate a chemical weapons convention that would ban the production, stockpiling, transfer and use of such weapons. The convention was opened for signature in January 1993 and ranks among the most important disarmament agreements of the 20th century. Western negotiators didn’t want the Novichok problem to endanger the deal.
The Americans remained mum on the issue in large part because the Soviet Union had the world’s largest chemical weapons arsenal and Novichok was only a very minor part of it. The opportunity to be able to dispose of the country’s remaining arsenal of death outweighed the concerns.
Meanwhile, the Germans were apparently seeking to safeguard their own interests. “We were concerned with protecting our own chemical industry,” says a government representative in Bonn who knew about the chemical agents and the priorities of the administration of Helmut Kohl, who was German chancellor at the time. The source materials for producing the nerve agent are commonplace chemicals, such as those used in the pesticide industry.
The situation changed with whistleblower Vil Mirzayanov, a chemist who initially served as a kind of environmental protection commissioner and then as the head of counterintelligence at the Moscow institute that spearheaded the Novichok program. Outraged over the hypocrisy of his government, which pretended to disarm while it actually continued to pursue its research, Mirzayanov leaked information about the secret program to the West.
Mirzayanov ensured that the U.S. government took Novichok more seriously. The Chemical Weapons Convention was about to be ratified and the U.S. Senate viewed Mirzayanov’s statements as “deeply disturbing.” In 1994, the Americans confronted the Russians on the issue.
As a U.S. State Department employee later revealed, Moscow’s diplomats did not dispute what Mirzayanov had said, but they did take issue with his interpretation. They said that Russia was only producing small quantities, for development and testing purposes, and that this was in compliance with international law.
Western intelligence officials viewed the Russian statements as credible at the time. “We were naïve,” one of the officials involved admits today. Andrew Weber refers to his experience in Nukus, Uzbekistan and points out that what he saw there was much too big to be mere laboratory experiments.
But the U.S. Senate merely rebuked Yeltsin and called on him to finally dismiss the “carryovers from the Soviet era” who were running the Novichok program. Whistleblower Mirzayanov was optimistic at the time. The Russian economy was down and it was simply too expensive to continue with the work. In his opinion, Moscow could no longer afford Novichok.
Research in the West
Western scientists then began to conduct their own research: in the laboratories in Porton Down in England; at the Edgewood Chemical Activity, a U.S. Army site in Edgewood, Maryland; at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), with its headquarters in The Hague; and in at least one other Western country. According to current information, these programs were aimed at protection: In order to develop an antidote, small quantities of Novichok substances must first be produced.
But a Czech scientist created a stir by accusing the Americans of pursuing a Novichok weapons program themselves. In response, a diplomat at the U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague assured a number of America’s allies that his country did “not develop or weaponize” Novichok. The statement can be read in a classified U.S. diplomatic cable. It was carefully worded to avoid the term “research.”
In 1997, the Chemical Weapons Convention went into effect and Novichok became a regular topic on the agenda for American-Russian relations. Western representatives debated with each other over questions that remain relevant today: Who is operating the program? Does the political leadership stand behind it? How dangerous is all of this?
“I’ve met people on the other side who really wanted to change things, but there were unfortunately also the others,” says one Western intelligence official, recalling discussions on weapons of mass destruction.
The U.S., Germany and other Western countries helped the cash-strapped Russians with billions in funds to dispose of their chemical weapons arsenals and were given access to formally top-secret military installations. But as soon as the topic of Novichok came up, the Russians became tightlipped. “I don’t think they’ve ever laid out the entire program,” says Weber. This is consistent with the allegations made by Mark Sedwill, the British national security advisor, in a letter to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg last week in which he contended that Russia had “developed some novichoks after ratifying the convention.”
‘Left to Experts’
The former superpower had just completed what was likely the most comprehensive peacetime disarmament in history. But Novichok chemical agents were among the few cutting-edge military technologies the Kremlin still had. Some speculated that the Russians continued the program simply because they could.
The Chemical Weapons Convention contains reporting requirements for certain chemicals. And experts debated the possibility of placing Novichok and its component compounds on such a list. But then came the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001. From that point on, the overriding concern was that rogue states could acquire weapons of mass destruction.
U.S. diplomats informed Washington that colleagues from Finland and other countries were talking about Novichok. Deeply concerned about this development, the U.S. State Department instructed the diplomats to report on every conversation, but to avoid bringing up the topic and, if questioned, feign ignorance. If pressed, they were to recommend that the subject be “left to experts in capitals.”
The reporting lists for chemicals are in the public domain. Many countries were afraid that it would lead to proliferation if too much was made known about Novichok, recalls German OPCW advisor Ralf Trapp. Viewed from this perspective, it appeared to be a favorable development when Putin was elected president of Russia in 2000. He bolstered the security apparatus, which put those in the West at ease who were afraid that old-boy networks could pass on chemical agents like Novichok behind the Kremlin’s back.
But Putin also expected that his country would be treated like a superpower again. Western diplomats now found that they were denied access to facilities that had long been open to them. The mistrust grew with each passing year. Attempts were made to clarify open questions on chemical weapons with the Russians, but these talks were “unproductive,” said a British diplomat who specifically referred to Novichok in April 2008.
According to U.S. diplomatic cables that DER SPIEGEL has in its possession, the allies unanimously agreed that Russia should not become a member of the Australia Group — and the situation hasn’t changed since.
If one is to believe British intelligence, Putin decided at the time to “produce and stockpile small quantities of Novichoks.” It is from these stockpiles, it is believed, that the attackers took the nerve agent that was used in the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen