From Russia with Death A Soviet Nerve Agent Triggers a New Cold War
The poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter earlier this month has significantly worsened already tense relations between Moscow and the West. The crime marks the first chemical weapons attack on Western Europe since the end of World War II. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
Vil Mirzayanov's home is located at the edge of a forest near Princeton, New Jersey. There's no buzzer, just a gate and behind it a long driveway leading up to the residence. The trees are still covered with snow. The gate opens and a man with a high forehead and white hair stretches out his hand in greeting. It's Mirzayanov, one of the creators behind the poison.
The 83-year-old wearing professorial eyeglasses walks cautiously. He invites the reporter into his living room and takes a seat in a leather armchair. He is ready, he says, to talk about the poison that he helped develop in the late 1980s and early 1990s for the Soviet government. A poison that was recently used in the first neurotoxin attack seen in Western Europe since the end of World War II. The substance is known as Novichok (Russian for "newcomer") and it is used for an entire group of nerve agents. All of them are deadly. In fact, it is one of the most dangerous toxins ever to have been produced by humans.
"I've led the fight against Novichok for the past 26 years," Mirzayanov says of a substance that has always haunted him for half his life.
He didn't invent the toxin, he says, but freely admits that he was involved in its development. He says he tested the substance on animals at the time -- on dogs and other species, which he then watched die in misery. The attack in Britain, he says, is the first time he knows of his poison being used on human beings.
Novichok is the chemical agent that was used to poison former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, a small, idyllic English city. Both have been fighting for their lives in the hospital ever since.
Tensions Worsen Dramatically
The attack using the nerve agent has triggered a serious diplomatic crisis between Russia, Britain and the entire West, with already tense relations having worsened dramatically. If Russia is unable to provide a better explanation, British Prime Minister Theresa May said earlier this week, then the attack will be seen as "an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom." She said the nerve agent had been developed in Russia and, assuming that Russia didn't lose control over the toxin, it's "highly likely that Russia was responsible for this reckless and despicable act."
Moscow countered that it had nothing to do with the attack and instead pointed the finger at other possible perpetrators, particularly the West. NATO and the European Union are currently deliberating over a response.
All because of Mirzayanov's poison.
It's a story reminiscent of a spy film. It involves undercover agents and oligarchs, betrayal and revenge. And nerve agents. It seems fitting that Mirzayanov himself is also a former Russian intelligence agent who now lives in exile in the United States.
He seems almost happy that someone has come to listen to him. And yet the whole world now wants to learn more about the kind of research he was doing in Mikhail Gorbachev's secret laboratories.
Mirzayanov began working as a chemist for the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology (GosNIIOKhT) in the mid-1960s. Later, he and other researchers were requisitioned to a military laboratory responsible for the production of chemical weapons, a top-secret program that operated under the codename "Foliant." In the mid-1980s, he was chosen to lead the institute's counterespionage department.
Novichok is "extremely dangerous," he says. "You're holding death in your hands. It just takes a moment and then you're gone." He says a person exposed to the kind of dose received by Skripal and his daughter will never be totally healthy again. Mirzayanov saw how another colleague accidentally poisoned himself with Novichok and slowly died, despite immediately being given an antidote. He says it is 10 times as potent as conventional nerve agents and causes an extremely painful death. It can be absorbed by the respiratory tract, orally or through the skin. It blocks communication between nerve cells and muscles and leads to cramps, respiratory paralysis and cardiac arrest.
Mirzayanov says he's certain that the Kremlin was behind the attack on Sergei Skripal. But how certain can one be?
Tragedy Strikes an Idyllic British City
The attack on Skripal in the heart of England is mysterious, there's no other way of putting it. There are numerous unanswered questions: How the drug was administered? Why Skripal? Why now?
Skripal, 66, is a former Russian agent and defector, who took British citizenship and has lived since 2011 in an inconspicuous red brick house in Salisbury in southern England. On March 3, his daughter Yulia, 33, came from Moscow for a visit.
The next day, a Sunday, father and daughter drove together to the city's historical center, home to a famous medieval cathedral. They parked Skripal's red BMW in front of a supermarket at 1:40 p.m. and went to a nearby pub.
At 2:20 p.m., the two entered the Zizzi pizzeria, where Skripal is reported to have acted strangely. Witnesses said the sturdily built man began complaining loudly about the long wait and cursed, as his daughter ate quietly next to him. The two left the restaurant about an hour later and likely headed back to their car, but they never got there. At 4:15 p.m., they were spotted by passersby slumped unconscious on a bench in a nearby park. They have been unresponsive ever since. Both are still in the hospital, along with police officer Nick Bailey, who was also exposed to the poison after being the first person to arrive at the scene.
On Thursday of this week, 11 days after the attack, the park bench remains wrapped in a yellow and white protective tarp. Two police officers stand guard in front of the small park. A playground is located nearby. There's a hairdresser next door, a gift shop and a New Age shop selling crystals.
"I was sitting with friends just a few feet away in a pub," says Alex Whitty, 33, who runs a nearby café. "We thought it was a homeless person who had passed out. When I got home, I saw on television that it was a Russian agent. Unbelievable. An agent who was murdered. Here in Salisbury."
Salisbury looks like a place straight out of the picture books. Located two hours from London, the streets here in this city of 40,000 are hedge-lined and could be the scene of a Harry Potter book. Low brick houses, narrow streets. Stonehenge is located nearby, as is, interestingly, Porton Down, the British government's secret chemical weapons center. It's home to a cathedral where a copy of the Magna Carta, the document that launched democracy in Britain, is on display. And now this.
Salisbury has become a crime scene. The secret service has taken over the investigation from the local police and Skripal's home has been sealed off, as has the park and the cemetery where his wife is buried. After first advising residents to just wash their things, the authorities have now grown more cautious. No one knows how badly the area has been contaminated. The restaurant table where Skripal sat was destroyed under strict safety precautions.
Several hundred anti-terror police and chemical weapons experts with the British military are now on the case, trying to determine how and when the poison was administered. At the time of publication, investigators were focusing on the vehicle. The poison may have been applied to the door handle or it may have entered the car through the vent. Even the tow truck that was used to remove the car from the crime scene is being tested for traces.
The biggest riddle investigators are trying to solve, however, is why Skripal? And why would such a spectacular and risky attack be risked on him in particular?
In the world of espionage, Skripal, who is originally from Kaliningrad, is only considered to have been a peripheral figure. A former colonel with the Russian military intelligence service GRU, he was stationed in Spain shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is there that he was reportedly recruited by Britain's MI6 in mid-1995. He was given the codename "Forthwith."
The British claim that Skripal was extremely useful, even having supplied the MI6 with GRU's complete telephone directory and the identities of hundreds of GRU people. He received between $5,000 and $6,000 per meeting as remuneration.
He doesn't seem to have made much of an impression on the people who know him. "He's a nice, normal person," says Colonel Vladimir Koshelev, who was a former member of a GRU commando unit. They would meet and drink wine together.
The Brits continued to tap Skripal until his cover was blown in 2004, with a Spanish double agent having caught wind of his treason. A military court sentenced him in 2006 to a relatively mild sentence of 13 years in a labor camp for high treason. Just four years later, he was freed as part of a prisoner exchange and was allowed to leave Russia for Britain.
In England, he has led a relatively normal life without any cover, and it doesn't appear he was too worried about his safety. Perhaps because it seemed rather far-fetched that a country would kill a spy it had previously swapped. Skripal hasn't made any effort in Salisbury to hide his true identity: When he joined the local Railway Social Club, he registered using his real name. Fellow members say he can hold his alcohol.
But in his new life as a Brit, Skripal has suffered an unusual number of setbacks. His wife Lyudmila died of cancer in 2012, and last year he was informed that his son Alexander had died in St. Petersburg, apparently from liver failure. In March 2016, Skripal's brother Valeri died in a car accident. It's a string of misfortune that British investigators are now reevaluating in light of this month's events.
Regardless who was behind the attack on Skripal, the question of the motive cannot be separated from that of the substance that was used. Why, after all, would a military-grade nerve agent be used?
Was the point to silence Skripal? Speaking against that theory is the fact that Skripal wasn't believed to be in possession of any valuable secrets. He left the GRU military intelligence service way back in 1999. And at the time of his release from prison, the Russian intelligence services had to have reviewed whether he would present any potential threat -- otherwise they never would have agreed to a prisoner swap. Skripal's old GRU comrade Koshelev also considers the idea to be absurd, especially given that other known traitors are still alive. "I really hope that Skripal survives," he says, "that he is tormented by his conscience and is afraid."
Was this a revenge attack? That would be a plausible motive for an individual perpetrator. Skripal did, after all, destroy enough careers that he many have awakened the desire for revenge in a number of them. But intelligence services seldom carry out revenge attacks, especially if they have the potential to jeopardize future exchange deals.
Perhaps the Kremlin was also seeking to send a message precisely at the time of Russia's presidential election on Sunday. By deploying a military-grade nerve agent that can be traced back to Russia, it may be sending a warning to potential defectors and Russians living abroad that no one is safe.
That would jibe with the message Putin sent out in 2010, when a group of Russian agents in the U.S. had their covers blown -- the same agents who were later traded for Skripal and others. Putin was asked in his annual question-and-answer show on television how traitors should be dealt with. In contrast to Soviet times, Putin said, there was no longer any special department for liquidating traitors. He said such means were no longer resorted to.
But, he continued, traitors would "choke on it," and the "30 pieces of silver" he received for his treachery would become "lodged in his throat," and a man who chose such a fate would "regret it a thousand times." It was classic Putin to provide two contradictory answers to the same question. Formally, he was denying the use of violence, but he was threatening violence at the same time.
On Thursday, the governments of Britain, France, Germany and the United States issued a joint statement noting that the UK has "thoroughly briefed its allies that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack." That means that the British have shared intelligence data with their partners.
The statement says the countries "share the United Kingdom's assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation." Russia's failure to address the questions asked by Britain "further underlines Russia's responsibility." It also implores Russia to disclose its Novichok program to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and to answer any of its questions. The statement demonstrated unity among allies -- at the end of a week that began with cracks showing between them.
New Sanctions for Moscow?
With her dramatic appearance on Monday night, Theresa May made clear how serious the British are about the issue. She issued an ultimatum to Moscow, leaving a backdoor open for the Russians to provide an explanation for how the chemical weapon could have reached Salisbury if the government was not involved.
But as it has done so often in the past, rather than addressing the allegations or offering its help in the investigation, the Russians went on the counterattack. In the Russian capital, officials openly mocked the British. Maria Zakharova, the brash spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, disparaged what she called a "circus show in the British parliament" and cracked Sherlock Holmes jokes. Little wonder, then, that May accused Moscow of reacting with "sarcasm, contempt and defiance."
The Russians, for their part, called on the British to go public with the British intelligence services' knowledge about the toxic agent used and to turn that evidence over to the OPCW. Unsurprisingly, some in Moscow began suggesting that London was behind the attack and that it had been an effort to discredit Russia. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson announced that the British government would allow international experts with the OPCW to analyze the poison that had been used.
Since Tuesday, though, officials in London have been spending a considerable amount of time getting allies to back the country's position. Initially, there had been discord between the Western allies. The French president's spokesperson demanded more information and U.S. President Donald Trump at first delayed expressing clear support for Britain. But Thursday's statement appeared to clear that up.
But what measures can the allies now take against the Russians?
The issue is expected to be addressed at next week's EU summit. On Monday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas will attend his first regular meeting of EU foreign ministers. Germany's new top diplomat didn't mince words in criticizing Russia during his first speech at the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday.
For the EU, showing solidarity with Britain provides an opportunity to demonstrate that the bloc is prepared to work with the UK on security policy issues despite difficult ongoing Brexit talks. The EU could theoretically expand existing sanctions by adding things like additional travel restrictions for people close to Putin. But that, too, might be difficult given that a few EU members would like to see the existing sanctions lifted.
And NATO? Concerns briefly circulated at headquarters in Brussels that Britain might invoke NATO's Article 5 joint defense clause. Under the clause, an attack on one member is considered an attack against all. But it would also require unanimity among all member states, which may be why Britain discarded the idea, at least for now.
Instead the NATO Council agreed on Wednesday to a joint statement. The "attack," it stated, "was a clear breach of international norms and agreements." The 28 allies also offered Britain "their support in the conduct of the ongoing investigation."
At the same time, the U.S. sparked irritation with its refusal to include the name of the nerve agent -- Novichok -- used in the communique. The session of the NATO Council even had to be adjourned due to the American refusal. Ultimately, though, the Americans backed down, though the reasons for their original hesitancy remain unclear.
For now, the British government will have to decide for itself which measures to take. Given its view that the Skripal case was an armed attack, it could invoke Article 51 of the UN Charter and undertake self-defense measures.
Still, the sanctions announced by May on Wednesday -- after the ultimatum expired -- were far from the maximum escalation possible. London announced it would temporarily expel 23 Russian diplomats and suspend high-level contacts with Moscow. In addition, no member of the British government or the royal family will travel to the World Cup this summer in Russia. It's not expected that these measures will do much to impress Russia. And the truth is the Britain actually did have possible measures at its disposal that could have hit Russia's elite hard.
London has a very special meaning for Russia. The city is a playground for many Russians -- something of a safe harbor. The City of London, as the hub of the financial industry here is called, is to a large degree little more than a massive bank where the world's super-rich can securely park their wealth.
Every Russian oligarch knows that he could lose his assets at any time. And those who are rich in Russia also know that their wealth is only borrowed. Which is why Russia's upper class loves London. It offers legal security -- and the kind of institutions that are lacking at home. Money is relatively safe once it arrives in London. The British capital is like landing on Free Parking in Monopoly. It's a place where you can take a deep breath before heading back into the battle for money. An estimated 300,000 people with Russian roots live in Britain. In addition to the super-rich, it has also long been home to members of the Russian opposition.
- Part 1: A Soviet Nerve Agent Triggers a New Cold War
- Part 2: 'Oh, not again. Everything Is Happening Again.'