Cold War nerve agent designed to be applied to bullets and deployed via missiles re-emerges as Russian assassination tool
by Giovanni Pigni –Asia Times
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.
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.
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.
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.