“Novichok” might be a word for something new in Russian, but there’s nothing new about the Russian media’s response to the latest incident involving the nerve agent in the UK. Following the death of a British woman from exposure to Novichok, the Kremlin, through the media it controls, has fired off scattershot denials of its role in the poisoning.
It was the same approach the Kremlin used when Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with Novichok in the English town of Salisbury in March.
The latest poisoning victims, Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, were hospitalized on June 30 after collapsing at home in Amesbury, a town 11 kilometers north of Salisbury.
On the evening of July 8, the police announced Sturgess had died. British police suspect that the pair came across a container contaminated with the nerve agent used in the attack on the Skripals.
Russian media, including the social media accounts of the Russian Foreign Ministry, immediately started to offer explanations for the incident that cast doubt on the official UK position, much as they did after the initial poisoning incident in March.
Indeed, in the months since the Skripals were attacked, dozens of differing narratives have been disseminated by the Russian ministers, media, and embassies – from blaming Ukraine, to accusing the UK government of creating the incident to distract from a child sex-abuse scandal.
The claims routinely contradict each other, and become wilder and more fanciful as time goes on.
But most concerning is that the narratives are also seemingly designed to undermine trust not just in the UK authorities and media, but in independent international bodies like the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The use of Novichok in Salisbury, which is not in fact in doubt, is a violation of international law and the Chemical Weapons Convention, of which Russia is a signatory, as convention members have to declare facilities and stockpiles of chemical weapons. Meanwhile, the British police have opened a murder investigation into Sturgess’ death.
War of words On July 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, reiterated that “there was not any convincing evidence of the Russian involvement” in the Skripal case. He later stated that it would be “absurd” to make any link between Russia and the latest incident.
Following the state’s line, Russian media continue to claim that there is no proof for Novichok being directly traceable to Russia, saying that any accusations are mere speculation.
That rhetoric directly contradicts the British government’s position and circumstantial evidence: The UK maintains that “there is no plausible alternative explanation for what happened in Salisbury other than Russian state responsibility.”
The Russian state is the most likely to have the technical means at hand for the production of Novichok, which actually refers to a series of nerve agents thought to have been developed at the State Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology in the 1970s and 1980s near Volgograd in Soviet Russia during the Cold War.
Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s entry to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the state continued to stockpile and produce small quantities of the deadly agent, Russian whistle-blowers have alleged.
In an interview on the state-controlled RIA Novosti website, Russian scientist Leonid Rink said he worked on the creation of Novichok in the 1980s. However, the interview on the site was later redacted to follow the Russian state line that no Novichok development program ever existed.
However, there is strong circumstantial evidence of Russian involvement in the attacks: over the last decade a pattern has developed where Russian nationals living in the UK with a background in security have been assassinated in unconventional manners.
Most infamously, in 2006 the former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium-210 in London. Following his death, the British Government’s inquiry found that there was a strong possibility that the FSB directly carried out the operation.
The British government points to the Russian security services for the Salisbury attack as they have the operational experience to have attempted to assassinate the Skripals.
Meanwhile, Russia has absurdly claimed there is no proof that the nerve agent was Novichok at all. After the Skripal attack, Putin said that if the agent had been a Novichok, “they would have died on the spot, obviously.”
But the reality of the situation is not so obvious. Dan Kaszeta, an expert in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense, underlined that claims that there is no cure for Novichok are inaccurate.
Although there is no specific antidote, there are a series of measures that paramedics, and later, medical specialists, can take to mitigate the effects of the nerve agent, according to Kaszeta. One drug is atropine, which stops the build-up of chemicals in the victim’s body, and is routinely stocked in ambulances and hospitals in the UK because of decades-old concerns about chemical terrorism.
Moreover, the OPCW confirmed the substance was Novichok following analysis of the agent by four independent laboratories. According to the OPCW, the chemical was of “high purity”, without contamination from other substances, indicating it must have been expertly produced in a controlled scientific environment – that implies it was produced in a government lab by a state actor.
Porton Down One of the ways the Russian media has attempted to distance Kremlin involvement in the attacks is by pointing to the proximity to Salisbury of Porton Down, the UK Ministry of Defense chemical weapons testing laboratory. Only about 10 kilometers from the city, the facility has been suggested by Russian media as a source of the nerve agent.
This is despite the fact that the UK’s chemical weapons manufacturing program has been closed since the 1950s. The laboratory produces only tiny quantities of chemical agents for developing medical countermeasures, after which they are securely disposed of, UK officials say.
However, this did not prevent one Russian Parliament Deputy, Nikolay Kovalyov, from making bizarre and unsubstantiated claims that the source of the nerve agent was a disgruntled former employee of Porton Down with “an unstable psyche.” Perhaps he was fired, Kovalyov suggested, and he now “continues his unhuman experiments” on the people of Salisbury.
A former head of the FSB, Kovalyov’s bizarre conspiracy theory was reported uncritically on July 5 by Russian news agency Interfax. His unusual theorizations about the Salisbury attack have been reported on before – he previously suggested, without offering any supporting evidence, that Ukraine was a potential source of the chemical.
In contrast, Gary Aitkenhead, Porton Down’s chief executive, has stated that “there is no way anything like that could have come from us or left the four walls of our facility.” The OPCW makes annual inspections of the site to check that weapon-grade chemicals are disposed of safely, and the UK leads the world in expertise of their disposal.
Own goal? As in March, when Putin stated that no government would carry out such an attack ahead of hosting the tournament, the 2018 FIFA soccer World Cup has been used as “evidence” of the Kremlin’s innocence. This is despite the fact that in the run-up to the World Cup the Russian state has heightened its involvement in Syria, illegally held elections in the Russian-occupied territory of Crimea, and continued its war on Ukraine in the Donbas.
Following the latest incident in Amesbury, some Russian news sites have reported speculative claims that it was staged in order to dent Russia’s reputation as it hosts the tournament. One Russian journalist, Maksim Sokolov, wrote an opinion piece on RIA Novosti on July 8 questioning the timing of the latest incident.
He said it was no coincidence that “just when the soft power of Russia triumphs” with the World Cup and the scheduled July 16 meeting between Putin and Trump, there was a new Novichok incident.
Similarly, on July 9, Alexander Shulgin, the Russian Ambassador to the Netherlands and envoy to the OPCW, said in an interview with Russian newspaper Izvestia that the situation was manufactured to damage Russia’s relations with other countries at the climax of the World Cup.
In its coverage of the latest poisoning, Russian media appeared to place greater focus on the timing of the incident, rather than the horrific poisoning of two people. Moreover, in many cases, Russian media misrepresented the British government’s narrative – the UK did not accuse Russia of intentionally targeting two civilians, but said the constant denial on the part of the Russian authorities during the initial investigation and its refusal to help had meant that traces of Novichok remained in the area.
On July 5, the Home Secretary Savid Javid stated in parliament that the Russian state must come forward and explain “exactly what has gone on.”
“It is completely unacceptable for our people to be either deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, parks, and towns to be dumping grounds for poison,” he added.
Meanwhile, Russia presents itself as ready to help the investigation, and accuses the British government of blocking their efforts to provide assistance. Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called for the start of “long-needed cooperation.”
However, Zakharova has previously made unsubstantiated claims that Sweden, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the United States, and Britain itself could have been sources of Novichok.
The Kremlin has also refused to provide assistance to UK investigators, instead insisting that it be allowed to participate in joint investigations into the incidents.