Novichok

Use of nerve agents gets my attention. The attack in Salisbury, England on 4 March not only put their targets in critical condition (Sergei Skripal and his daughter), but left one responding British police officer seriously ill, two others with minor injuries.

The nerve agent used is Novichok, which was invented in the Soviet Union, and as far as I know, is unique to Russia:

See: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/novichok-russian-nerve-agent-used-attack-ex-spy-sergei-skripal-great-britain/

And: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novichok_agent

 

P.S. I can see only three reasons to use this agent for an assassination:

  1. Because it is easy to smuggle in the agent or its component ingredients.
  2. To make sure everyone understands that it was done from Russia (although not necessarily by the Russian government).
  3. To terrorize defectors/opposition/business associates by using unusual and gruesome agents (i.e. like Polonium used on Litvinenko).

 

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Christopher A. Lawrence
Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience.
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Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
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His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024).
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Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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7 Comments

  1. “To make sure everyone understands that it was done from Russia (although not necessarily by the Russian government).”

    Here it bocomes tricky IMHO as chemist: If you can verify the substance you usually have to know its structure, with known structure you are also able to synthesise the compound, in case of nerve agents usually in an expensive lab. Hence, you are able to perform a false flag operation.

    Disclaimer: I asume that the source was Russian, I only point to a logical loophole in your argument 2.

    • If the structures in your wikipedia link are correct then we are talking about reletivley simple compounds that could be synthesised in a good lab, they are not special and can be very likely ade with precursors used in pesticide production.

      During the developement of such compounds the PITA is prodcucing a large variety of compounds and TESTING them, if the best candidates are known others can make them too.

      And again, if you can determine the compound, you have to know its structure, therefore, you can make it.

      • Well, in in the second link in my follow-on post on the subject, Vil Mirzayanov states that the only other possibility [to the Russians] would be that someone used the formulas in his book to make such a weapon.

        So it is possible…..I don’t consider it very likely.

        • Here some input from academia:

          https://timhayward.wordpress.com/2018/03/14/urgent-communication-questions-to-be-addressed-regarding-novichoks/

          The inherent contradiction for me as chemist still is:

          If you can identify trace amounts of a compound you use sensitive techniques like mass spectrometry that usually do NOT allow the determination of a chemical structure de novo.

          For structure determination with NMR or X-ray you need at least one pure authentic sample in the 1-10 mg range. A MS run of the known structure gives you molecular mass and characteristic fragment ions etc. which later allows identification of this compound at very low concentrations.

          • The argument in the blog post you have linked to I gather is two-fold: 1) That Novichok may not have ever existed and 2) that is could be easily created outside of Russia.

            The first argument is odd….because if it did not exist, then what was used in Salisbury? What was Vil Mirzayanov writing about? I am pretty sure he was debriefed by the U.S., as he lives here. I also assume he was not their only intelligence source. I think the de-briefers would have figured out if Novichok existed or not.

            In light of the first claim, the discussion that this (non-existent) agent can be made outside of Russia seems to obviate their first point.

            Anyhow, it is possible that it could have been made outside of Russia. I don’t give this argument much credence. Why and who (both are important) would go through the trouble to make this obscure nerve agent just to kill a defector in England (and I gather frame Russia)?

  2. “The first argument is odd….because if it did not exist, then what was used in Salisbury?”

    Acoording to the author there is doubt that a huge Russian program has existed. The presence of the compound only proves that somebody made it. And again: If you claim that you can identify it you had a “larger” sample in hand. 🙂

    The point is that it is in many cases not possible to prove a certain origin.

    “Anyhow, it is possible that it could have been made outside of Russia. I don’t give this argument much credence. ”

    No dispute here, but now we are talking about likelihoods. And it is not by chance that in the press releases there were very carefully crafted statements like “compounds that were first synthesized in Russia”.

    Therefore, from a scientific point of view we have no clear evidence that Russia poduced and released the substance, however, in a political context it makes sense to assume this.

    “Why and who (both are important) would go through the trouble to make this obscure nerve agent just to kill a defector in England.”

    Then the other question is why did Russia use it? Simply executing the victims would also send a message. I can also find good arguments that countries like Ukraine could have a real interest to blame Russia…..

    Without catching a suspect pants down makes it it impossible to prove something.

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