The attempted murder in England of former spy Sergei Skripal with a nerve agent developed in Russia has stirred Cold War tensions, but evidence of Moscow’s involvement is yet to be found. By Hamish McDonald.

The Skripals, Novichok and the Cold War

Yulia and Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.
Credit: Facebook

The saga began in Madrid in 1995. Sergei Skripal worked in the Russian embassy as a military attaché. An engineer and paratrooper early in his career, he had moved to the Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, of the Russian general staff.

This was his second foreign posting – the first was in Malta – and the country he represented was a shambles where any socialist self-sacrifice had given way to looting of state assets. Skripal himself was enjoying life in the West, but he was developing diabetes and could see a miserable time ahead as a state pensioner back home.

A friendly Spaniard proposed a wine-import business on the side. Soon this “Spaniard” revealed himself as an officer of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, offering a second sideline selling Russian secrets. This relationship continued when Skripal went back to GRU headquarters in Moscow and then retired to a job in the foreign ministry. He used a “dead drop” in a Moscow park, or met handlers on holidays in Spain and Turkey.

In 2006 Skripal was rumbled, put on trial, and sentenced to 13 years’ jail. But spy services don’t forget their own. In mid 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation found a dozen Russians living in the United States as sleeper agents for the SVR, the Russian external intelligence service separated from the old KGB after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 (with the domestic security arms rebadged as the FSB). The discovery provided material for a long-running TV serial, The Americans. The FBI had another use for the 10 agents in its hands. They were promptly swapped at Vienna’s airport, for four jailed spies for the West, including Skripal.

Skripal settled in the English town of Salisbury, perhaps because it was the home of his former handler, who retired with an OBE in 2015. Salisbury is sleepy, though not without its mysteries. Nearby are the prehistoric Stonehenge monument, military training grounds and the highly secret chemical and biological defence research facility Porton Down.

Neither Skripal nor any minders thought he needed a fake identity. A convention of the Cold War seemed to be continuing: those handed over in spy-swaps would be left alone, unlike defectors.

Skripal bought a modest house in his own name and was joined by his wife before she died of cancer. The sins of the father are not inherited in Russia, it seems – Skripal’s daughter, Yulia, studied in Britain, then returned to work in Moscow, and a son stayed in Russia, where he died of liver failure a year ago.

This year, on Saturday, March 3, Yulia, now 33, flew to London and went down to Salisbury. The next day, in the early afternoon, Sergei and Yulia went to the Zizzi pasta restaurant, then to The Mill, a riverside pub. Soon afterwards they were found nearby slumped on a shopping-centre bench, Yulia comatose and showing the whites of her eyes, Sergei unconscious with his hands fluttering strangely.

Their identities, and the symptoms, soon got British police and intelligence agencies zeroing in on the possibility of a nerve agent. Just over a year earlier, North Korean agents had shown how it might be done, getting two dupes to smear VX on the face of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of leader Kim Jong-un, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

On March 12, British Prime Minister Theresa May told parliament her scientists had identified a “military grade” nerve agent of a Russian-developed type known as Novichok. Either the Russian state had ordered the attack, or it had lost control of this highly dangerous chemical weapon. She gave Moscow two days to come up with a “credible response” that explained events, or retaliation would follow.

What followed was Russian bluster and red herrings, including suggestion of a “false flag” operation by Britain itself. May announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats she said were “undeclared intelligence officers”. She then talked to leaders of France, Germany and the United States, and on March 16 to Malcolm Turnbull, resulting in them bringing the total of expelled Russian diplomats the next week to more than 150 from about 20 countries, including two from Canberra. Matching expulsions from embassies and consulates in Russia have followed.

In the background, May’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, ramped up the accusations. “We actually have evidence within the last 10 years that Russia has not only been investigating the delivery of nerve agents for the purposes of assassination, but has also been creating and stockpiling Novichok,” he said. And it was “overwhelmingly likely” Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally ordered the nerve agent attack.

But what, so far, is the evidence? Porton Down scientists found, according to a High Court judge who authorised the taking of blood samples from the unconscious Skripals, indications of “exposure to a nerve agent or related compound. The samples tested positive for the presence of a Novichok-class nerve agent or closely related agent.”

For their part, the Russians dispute they had chemical weapons called Novichok, which means “newcomer” in Russian. But this seems to be sophistry. Three former Soviet chemists – Vladimir Uglev, Leonid Rink and Vil Mirzayanov – have gone public over the years about their work in the 1970s and 1980s at an institute in the southern Russian town of Shikhany, closed to unauthorised visitors. While Novichok seems to have been a name they used for the powerful new nerve agents they synthesised, the overall program went under the codename Foliant.

The agents may never have been weaponised and were not declared as part of the Russian arsenal when Russia joined the global chemical weapons ban in 1997. But some quantities were produced. Mirzayanov was prosecuted for revealing “state secrets” when he wrote about Novichok in 1992, and later defected to the US. Rink served jail time for selling vials of Novichok to Chechen gangsters, which they used to murder banker Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary in 1995.

The dissemination of formulas for Novichok has almost certainly led to other countries engineering samples of their own, if only for forensic testing, as is now happening at Porton Down. In January 2017, the journal Spectroscopy Now reported that Iranian scientists had synthesised five Novichok agents, along with four chemical analogues.

What this all suggests is that the Russian state may retain some Novichok outside the ken of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Netherlands-based agency that monitors the global ban. At least in the past, Novichok was available to underworld groups that sometimes carry out domestic assassinations for the Kremlin. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo produced the nerve agent Sarin, testing it on sheep in Western Australia, before using it and VX in mass attacks from 1994 to ’95. Other non-state actors would no doubt like to follow suit with Novichok if they could.

As a former OPCW scientist, Ralf Trapp, told investigative website Insurge, Russian denials about ever having Novichok-type nerve agents were not credible. But there is no proof yet revealed about a retained capability, and other possibilities for the agent used in the Skripal attack exist beyond the two stated by Theresa May. “There are other theoretical possibilities,” Trapp said, but “it would depend on what else the UK knows and has not yet made public.”

This week Porton Down chief Gary Aitkenhead said it was not possible to say where the Novichok was created. “It’s a military-grade nerve agent, which requires extremely sophisticated methods in order to create – something that’s probably only within the capabilities of a state actor,” he said. The government’s fingering of Russia came from other sources.

How the attackers administered the nerve agent is still unclear. Police are working on CCTV footage, witness statements and nerve-agent residues. They thought Novichok might have been put in Yulia’s luggage in Moscow, or the air vents of Sergei’s car, but lately think it might have been splashed on their front-door handle. Novichok is routinely described as several times more powerful than VX, which took 20 minutes to kill Kim Jong-nam, yet the Skripals may have gone a couple of hours around Salisbury before collapsing. Yulia and the police sergeant first on the scene have made partial recoveries.

Russia specialists are puzzled about motive. Putin’s spooks do assassinate defectors, but why break Cold War rules this way? Was Putin out to humiliate Britain, or to boost his re-election vote? Had Skripal gone back into business, perhaps helping former MI6 officer Christopher Steele with his Donald Trump dossier? But what use or threat could a blown intelligence asset have been for that? Aside from Russians, what actors would do this? After the Iraq “sexing-up” example, who believes British assurances about intelligence evidence, especially from Boris Johnson?

Perhaps belatedly, British police and scientists are handing samples to the OPCW, which would have more chance of accessing evidence in Russia. It may be a Chinese scientist who runs the inquiry, and Iran, a signatory to the ban, has handed its data on Novichok to the OPCW.

Even many security hawks query May’s rush to point the finger, contrasting it with the cautious police work she supervised as home minister on the 2006 murder of FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium-210 slipped into his tea at a London hotel. Years of investigation led to a high-level panel naming former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi, now a member of Russia’s state Duma, and his friend Dmitry Kovtun as the murderers acting under FSB orders, in an operation that Putin had “probably approved” along with then FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev. Unkindly, some suggest it’s a welcome diversion from the Brexit disaster.

Meanwhile, Trump, leaving the diplomatic expulsions for staff to announce, phoned Putin to congratulate him on his March 18 election win and to invite him to the White House.

And in Salisbury’s hospital, a man and a woman lie stricken by one of the ghastliest weapons humanity has devised.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 7, 2018 as "Tincture, Theresa, Salisbury, spy".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Hamish McDonald
is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.  

Our journalism is founded on trust and independence

Register your email for free access or log in if you already subscribe

      Keep Reading                 Subscribe