Julie Bishop has placed Australia firmly in Britain’s corner in the escalating row with Russia over the nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy on UK soil.
The British prime minister, Theresa May, expelled 23 Russian diplomats, among other measures, after saying the Russian state was to blame for the 4 March poison attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, which has left both in a critical condition.
Russia retaliated overnight, expelling British diplomats. The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the attack.
Bishop said Australia would support the UK in any move to send weapons inspectors into Russia to view its program, given Russia’s 1997 signature on the chemical weapons convention.
“Under the chemical weapons convention, one state that suspects another state of having illegal chemical weapons can seek these inspections and Britain certainly has the right to do that, and they are aware that we would support them, should they go down that path,” Bishop told the ABC.
“This is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue. One cannot have a permanent member of the security council, or indeed any country anywhere, any time, deploying illegal chemical weapons, and so clearly Britain is within its rights to take action, as it has done with expelling diplomats.
“Russia typically retaliates. But I have been in constant communication with [UK] foreign secretary Boris Johnson and Australia is most certainly considering what other options might be available.”
May has spoken in UK parliament to condemn Russia for the attack.
“On Monday I set out that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Novichok: a military grade nerve agent developed by Russia,” she told MPs in a statement last week.
“Based on this capability, combined with their record of conducting state sponsored assassinations – including against former intelligence officers whom they regard as legitimate targets – the UK government concluded it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for this reckless and despicable act.
“And there were only two plausible explanations.
“Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country.
“Or conceivably, the Russian government could have lost control of a military-grade nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”
On Sunday, Bishop echoed May’s language and said Australia also believed Russia was either behind the attack or had lost control of its chemical weapons program.
“Russia is a party to the chemical weapons convention and under that chemical weapons convention, all chemical weapons should have been declared and it would appear that this nerve agent has not been declared,” she said.
Nerve agents are not hard to make in principle, but in practice it takes specialised facilities and training to mix the substances safely. The raw materials themselves are inexpensive and generally not hard to obtain, but the lethality of the agents means they tend to be manufactured in dedicated labs. The main five nerve agents are tabun, which is the easiest to make, sarin, soman, GF and VX. The latter was used to kill Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, at Kuala Lumpur airport last year. VX is particularly stable and can remain on clothing, furniture and the ground for a long time without proper decontamination.
All pure nerve agents are colourless organophosphorus liquids which, after they were discovered to be highly poisonous in the 1930s, became the dominant chemical weapons of the second world war. Once made, the substances are easy to disperse, highly toxic, and have rapid effects. Most are absorbed swiftly through the skin or inhaled, but they can also be added to food and drink.
The agents take their toll on the body by disrupting electrical signals throughout the nervous system and the effects are fast and dramatic. Victims find it increasingly hard to breathe. Their lungs produce more mucus which can make them cough and foam at the mouth. They sweat, their pupils constrict, and their eyes run. The effects on the digestive system trigger vomiting. Meanwhile the muscles convulse. Many of those affected will wet themselves and lose control of their bowels. At high doses, failure of the nerves and muscles of the respiratory system can kill before other symptoms have time to develop. There are antidotes for nerve agents, such as oxime and atropine, which are particularly effective against VX and sarin, but they should be given soon after exposure to be effective.
“In fact, Russia’s program, developing this nerve agent, has not been declared. So there are obligations on Russia to get rid of any chemical weapons and most certainly it should have declared what it was doing with this program.
“There is no other explanation, no other plausible explanation, as to where this nerve agent came from. Either Russia was behind the attempted assassination of it has lost control of this previously undisclosed stockpile of nerve agent.”
Russians are voting in the presidential election on Sunday, which is expected to return Vladimir Putin to power for a further six years.
Novichok refers to a group of nerve agents that were developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s to elude international restrictions on chemical weapons. Like other nerve agents, they are organophosphate compounds, but the chemicals used to make them, and their final structures are considered classified in the UK, the US and other countries. By making the agents in secret, from unfamiliar chemicals, the Soviet Union aimed to manufacture the substances without being impeded.
“Much less is known about the novichoks than the other nerve agents,” said Alastair Hay, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Leeds who investigated the use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in Halabja in 1988. “They are not widely used at all.”
The most potent of the novichok substances are considered to be more lethal than VX, the most deadly of the familiar nerve agents, which include sarin, tabun and soman.
And while the novichok agents work in a similar way, by massively over-stimulating muscles and glands, one chemical weapons expert told the Guardian that the agents do not degrade fast in the environment and have “an additional toxicity”. “That extra toxicity is not well understood, so I understand why people were asked to wash their clothes, even if it was present only in traces,” he said. Treatment for novichok exposure would be the same as for other nerve agents, namely with atropine, diazepam and potentially drugs called oximes.
The chemical structures of novichok agents were made public in 2008 by Vil Mirzayanov, a former Russian scientist living in the US, but the structures have never been publicly confirmed. It is thought that they can be made in different forms, including a dust aerosol that would be easy to disperse.
The novichoks are known as binary agents because they become lethal only after mixing two otherwise harmless components. According to Mirzayanov, they are 10 to 100 times more toxic than the conventional nerve agents.
The fact that so little is known about them may explain why Porton Down scientists took several days to identify the compound used in the attack against Sergei and Yulia Skripal. While laboratories around the world that are used to police chemical weapons incidents have databases of nerve agents, few outside Russia are believed to have full details of the novichok compounds and the chemicals needed to make them.