UK's claims questioned: doubts emerge about source of Salisbury's novichok

Ewen MacAskill Defence correspondent
Theresa May with Wiltshire police’s chief constable, Kier Pritchard, in Salisbury on Thursday. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

It was a historic moment largely ignored at the time by most of the world’s media and might have remained so but for the attack in Salisbury. At a ceremony last November at the headquarters of the world body responsible for the elimination of chemical weapons in The Hague, a plaque was unveiled to commemorate the destruction of the last of Russia’s stockpiles.

Gen Ahmet Üzümcü, the director general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which works closely with the UN, was fulsome in his praise. “This is a major achievement,” he said. The 192-member body had seemingly overseen and verified the destruction Russia’s entire stock of chemical weapons, all 39,967 metric tons.

The question now is whether all of Russia’s chemical weapons were destroyed and accounted for. Theresa May – having identified the nerve agent used in the Salisbury attack as novichok, developed in Russia – told the Commons on Wednesday that Russia had offered no explanation as to why it had “an undeclared chemical weapons programme in contravention of international law”. Jeremy Corbyn introduced a sceptical note, questioning whether there was any evidence as to the location of its production.

The exchanges provoked a debate echoing the one that preceded the 2003 invasion of Iraq over whether UN weapons inspectors had overseen the destruction of all the weapons of mass destruction in the country or whether Saddam Hussein had retained secret hidden caches.

On social media, there were arguments that the novichok could have come from some part of the former Soviet Union other than Russia, such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan or Ukraine, or some non-state group, maybe criminals.

The years following the fall of the Berlin Wall were chaotic, with chemical weapons laboratories and storage sites across the Soviet Union abandoned by staff who were no longer being paid. Security was almost non-existent, leaving the sites at the mercy of criminal gangs or disenchanted staff looking to supplement their income.

“Could somebody have smuggled something out?” Amy Smithson, a US-based biological and chemical weapons expert, said to Reuters. “I certainly wouldn’t rule that possibility out, especially a small amount and particularly in view of how lax the security was at Russian chemical facilities in the early 1990s.”

It took almost a decade before order was restored, in part through stockpiles being transferred to Russia from other parts of the former Soviet Union and in part through help from US and other western experts.

Novichok was developed at a laboratory complex in Shikhany, in central Russia, according to a British weapons expert, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, and a Russian chemist involved in the chemical weapons programme, Vil Mirzayanov, who later defected to the US. Mirzayanov said the novichok was tested at Nukus, in Uzbekistan.

The former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, who visited the site at Nukus, said it had been dismantled with US help. He is among those advocating scepticism about the UK placing blame on Russia.

In a blog post, he wrote: “The same people who assured you Saddam Hussein had WMDs now assure you Russian ‘novichok’ nerve agents are being wielded by Vladimir Putin to attack people on British soil.”

A Russian lawyer, Boris Kuznetsov, told Reuters he was offering to pass to the British authorities a file he said might be relevant to the Salisbury case. It details an incident when poison hidden in a phone receiver killed a Russian banker and his secretary in 1995. The poison came from an employee at the state chemical facility who sold it through intermediaries – in an ampule placed in a presentation case – to help reduce his debts.

The UK government case rests not just on its argument that novichok was developed in Russia, but what it says is past form, a record of Russian state-sponsored assassination of former spies.

Murray, in a phone interview, is undeterred, determined to challenge the government line, in spite of having been subjected to a level of abuse on social media he had not experienced before.

“There is no evidence it was Russia. I am not ruling out that it could be Russia, though I don’t see the motive. I want to see where the evidence lies,” Murray said. “Anyone who expresses scepticism is seen as an enemy of the state.”

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