Op-ed: The curious case of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, both of whom were found slumped on a park bench, poisoned in Salisbury, outside of Stonehenge, England has all the makings of an assassination. And if it turns out to be just that, an assassination attempt by the Russians, which it does, it is going to set things back a very long way between the UK, the West, and Russia.
Sergei Skripal was a spy, and he was caught by the Russians, supposedly passing secrets off to the British MI6. He was arrested for treason but was traded in 2010 for numerous Russian “sleeper” agents in the U.S. He has been living in the UK quietly since then.
The investigation into the nerve agent poisoning has been turned over from the police to the Counter-Terrorism Police. The official explanation was that due to the “unusual circumstances” the counter-terrorism unit would now be heading the investigation.
British intelligence sources report that toxicology tests would be key. The fact that it was Novichok explains a lot. The Russians were very brazen in their attempt to kill Skripal and they aren’t worried about repercussions. In fact, they seem to be using this to send a message.
What is Novichok? The former Soviet Union invented Novichok agents and “pioneered their manufacturing techniques,” said Dan Kaszeta, an expert in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense with Strongpoint Security, a defense and security consultancy in London.
In several Twitter posts, Kaszeta said the agents were “specifically developed to evade the West/NATO’s detection capabilities” and deter efforts to collect intelligence. Experts believe that Novichok, considered to be among the deadliest chemical agents, was manufactured specifically to kill people.
Kaszeta added that the Soviets, and subsequently Russian authorities, “went to great lengths to keep the program secret at a point when the USSR had already agreed in principle to chemical arms control.”
The 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Russia was a signatory, aimed to eliminate the production, acquisition and stockpiling of chemical weapons, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
However, Novichok was designed to circumvent those conventions. Nerve agents such as Novichok are rare, tightly controlled substances that require intimate specialized knowledge to manufacture and store safely. There isn’t any way for some domestic terrorist to cook this up at home.
Nerve agents are easily dispersed and can be absorbed through the skin, ingested and inhaled. Kaszeta said at least one Novichok agent “is a solid at normal temperatures” and “could be deployed as a dust or powder,” allowing for slower absorption. And powder would be “harder to detect with normal chemical warfare detection means.”
Novichok agents are difficult to detect because it is made up of two different compounds that are not dangerous until they are mixed together which are not only hard to detect but very easy to transport. The only countries that manufacture Novichok are Russia and countries in the former Soviet Union.
Novichok is reported to be five to eights times more lethal than VX, the nerve agent reportedly used in the slaying of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother in Malaysia last year. The effects of Novichok act rapidly, and those affected generally feel the full impact of its side effects within 30 seconds to two minutes.
Effects of Nerve Agent: The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reported that a low dose of nerve agent could cause “minor poisoning,” with symptoms such as “increased production of saliva, a runny nose and a feeling of pressure on the chest.” Additional warning signs include impaired night vision, headaches, fatigue, slurred speech, hallucinations, and nausea.
Exposure to a higher dose of nerve agent causes more dramatic and pronounced symptoms. These include difficulty in breathing leading to coughing; discomfort in the gastrointestinal tract causing cramps and vomiting; involuntary discharge of urine and defecation; running eyes; sweating; muscular weakness; and tremors or convulsions. Victims can lose consciousness and, in some cases, suffer a rapid collapse of body functions and die. Death by nerve agents is usually death by suffocation.
And the British have done their investigation as British Prime Minister Theresa May said that the nerve agent used to poison Skripal and his daughter was “a type developed by Russia.”
May said Russia has a long history of state-sponsored assassinations and British intelligence reports have established that it has produced Novichok and is capable of doing so again.
Prime Minister May said because of the difficulties of manufacturing and handling of Novichok, it was impossible not to conclude that the attack in Salisbury was either carried out by the Russians or that the Russians had lost control of its stockpile of nerve agent that it said was destroyed and “allowed it to get into the hands of others.”
It is unclear how and when the Skripals were exposed to the poison. They were reported to have visited a local restaurant and pub before being found slumped unconscious on a park bench. But the effects come on so quickly, it had to take place in the park or very close to the bench that they were found
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reported that a low dose of nerve agent could cause “minor poisoning,” with symptoms such as “increased production of saliva, a running nose and a feeling of pressure on the chest.” Additional warning signs include impaired night vision, headaches, fatigue, slurred speech, hallucinations, and nausea.
Exposure to a higher dose of nerve agent causes more dramatic and pronounced symptoms, the agency reported. These include difficulty in breathing leading to coughing; discomfort in the gastrointestinal tract causing cramps and vomiting; involuntary discharge of urine and defecation; running eyes; sweating; muscular weakness; and tremors or convulsions. Victims can lose consciousness and, in some cases, suffer a rapid collapse of body functions and die.
Sending A Message: One former Russian operative has said nerve agents were used only if the goal was to draw attention to the target. “This is a very dirty method. There’s a risk of contaminating other people, which creates additional difficulties,” he told the British media, adding: “There are far more delicate methods that professionals use.”
So why did the Russians try to send a message in such a brazen fashion? One is the election that Putin hasn’t even campaigned for because it was already decided. Voter apathy is projected to be extremely low. The opposition’s leaders are calling for the populace to boycott the vote giving the impression that Putin is supported by very few of the populace. The Russians have been largely trumpeting this as a British plot to turn the world against Russia. It is a ploy that plays well to the majority of the population and has been used forever by Moscow.
Another possible scenario may be tied to the Skripal case across the pond in the U.S. President Trump hasn’t made a ton of friends with his silence on this. The President is on Twitter non-stop but this hasn’t registered on his radar. Reportedly, he made a phone call to Theresa May, the British PM and said that the Russians have to give unambiguous answers on how this particular nerve agent came to be in England. But that’s it.
Rex Tillerson was the only member of the administration to come out and say anything close to the Russians were responsible. And he was fired, so the British, our closest allies in the world since the 1940s are getting precious little support.
The U.S. through the Mueller probe is looking into any Russian involvement in the 2016 election meddling. This could be a not-so-subtle message from Putin to Russian and American alike, that three can keep a secret if two are dead. Open your mouth to anyone and not only yourself but your families can be dealt with as well.
That is who you’re dealing with…