Vil Mirzayanov suspected Russia from the start. As soon as he read about the mysterious attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter in the quaint English town of Salisbury, he assumed that Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were victims of a Russian assassination attempt with a nerve agent.
President Donald Trump was slower to draw the same conclusion. Three weeks after the attack, and 12 days after Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats, the White House expelled 60 Russian diplomats from Washington, New York, and Seattle, 12 of whom were identified as intelligence agents, the toughest action so far against the Kremlin by President Trump.
Interviewed last week at his home in Princeton, Mirzayanov, an 83-year-old chemist, has not discussed the attack with officials from Britain’s Scotland Yard or its external intelligence agency, MI-6, or with any American law enforcement or intelligence agency. That wasn’t necessary, he said. After having seen countless lab animals—rats, mice, and dogs—exposed to nerve agents during his 26-year career in Moscow’s chemical-weapons program, he told me, the tell-tale signs were familiar.
The weapon of choice in the Salisbury attack, as Britain has asserted, was a novichok (“newcomer” in Russian). Part of the “fourth generation” nerve agents that Moscow developed in the 1970s and 1980s, manufactured cheaply and designed to evade detection, Novichoks are eight to ten times more powerful than their chemical cousin, VX. Mirzayanov echoes British prime minister Theresa May’s conclusion that the Russians perpetrated the attack on the Skripals; Moscow denies it.
Dispersed in powder or gas form, Novichok attacks the nervous system. Muscles contract in spasms; pupils shrink to pinpoints, and victims cannot breathe, causing death by asphyxia. “It is a terrible, painful way to die,” Mirzayanov said. “Even if the Skripals live,” he added, “they will never recover.”
The Skripals were found on March 4 on a bench outside a local pub and pizza parlor. Both remain hospitalized, critically ill; at least 30 other people exposed to the agent were treated for symptoms. A British police officer who responded to the attack and was hospitalized was released last week, weakened and shaken.
A spokesman for the police called the investigation “one of the largest and most complex in British counter-terrorism policing.” According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, investigators have collected over 750 pieces of evidence, interviewed hundreds of witnesses, and scoured 4,000 hours of closed-circuit television footage. On Thursday, officers in white protective clothing removed the bench where the Skripals were found, a potential crime exhibit in the case Britain is building for attempted murder.
Mirzayanov said that newly reelected Russian president Vladimir Putin must have authorized such a politically treacherous murder attempt, and that the sanctions imposed on Russia so far were unlikely to deter him from trying to assassinate other foes and critics or frighten them into silence. Britain’s expulsion of 23 diplomats, the largest such discharge since World War II, was a “good first step,” he said, “but not nearly enough.” To deter future attacks, Britain and its allies must freeze the assets of Putin and his wealthy cronies. Moscow, he warned, would not voluntarily abandon these weapons or its program to perfect them.
“Novichoks are a source of pride,” Mirzayanov said. Most of the other lethal chemicals now banned by the chemical weapons treaty—sarin, soman, VX—were German inventions. “This new series of weapons was all ours.”
Mirzayanov eventually soured on Russia’s secret chemical creation. In fact, the world might not know about this class of nerve agent were it not for his growing disgust for the program that employed him and his determination to expose Russian cheating on the then newly-signed Chemical Weapons Convention (1997) banning signatories from developing, producing, stockpiling, or using such agents as weapons. His decision to write a book—State Secrets, an Insider’s Chronicle of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program—denouncing Russia for hiding the development of Novichoks was not easy, he recalled. A Muslim of Tartar origin, a persecuted minority, Mirzayanov spent most of his professional life at the State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology near Moscow, rising to the post of director of technical counterintelligence. “Weapons scientists were privileged,” he told me. “We were paid well—better than in open institutions, given free lunches, and twice the vacation time.”
Mirzayanov came to believe that chemical weapons were a moral outrage and militarily an “absolute anachronism.” Russia, he wrote, was “wasting vast resources on CW research, testing, and production” for weapons of no military utility, useful only against civilians and other “unprotected populations.” “As a specialist and a person who had put forth considerable effort to create this evil, I understood that I had no right to keep silent,” he wrote. In October 1991 and in September 1992, he wrote articles in the Russian press reporting that, while then-president Mikhail Gorbachev was negotiating and signing treaties banning chemical weapons, Russia was still making and storing them.
Punishment was swift. Fired from his job and forced to sell sneakers and jeans on Moscow streets to feed his family, Mirzayanov was arrested and thrown first into Lefortovo and then Matrosskaya Tishina, two infamous prisons. Subjected to a classic Soviet show trial for treason, he managed to hand-copy 60 top-secret documents, which he published in an appendix to his book. Under intense Western pressure, Russian prosecutors closed the case against him in 1994. Last June, a court awarded him 33 million rubles in damages.
“The world might still be in the dark about the Novichok program were it not for the conscience and courage of Dr. Vil Mirzayanov,” Amy Smithson, an expert on weapons of mass destruction, wrote last week in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Mirzayanov, she wrote, had “detailed the locations used for research, testing, and production” of Novichok agents, identified the program’s chief scientists, and revealed other features of the effort, such as the fact that the Soviet program was designed to be masked by the agrochemical industry to escape detection. The Red Army had approved three Novichok agents as weapons of war in 1989 and 1990.
Russia’s denials continue. Since the March 4 attack, the Russian foreign ministry and its representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Hague-based agency established to monitor and verify implementation of the chemical weapons ban, have insisted that no Russian chemical-weapons program called “Novichok” exists. This is at least semantically correct, because by some accounts the program is codenamed “Foliant.” Russian officials suggest that the nerve agent might have been produced in Great Britain— Salisbury is near Porton Down, Britain’s chemical-defense facility—or in Sweden, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, or the U.S, which once had a robust chemical-weapons program. Russian spokesmen note that Moscow is ahead of the U.S. in meeting its commitment to destroy chemical-weapons stockpiles, as the 1997 treaty requires. According to the Bulletin, while Alexander Shulgin, Russia’s representative to the OPCW, has acknowledged that Russia once researched and tested binary nerve agents, unidentified foreign “special services” took Russian scientists abroad in the early 1990s to continue their research. Shulgin blamed the Novichok program on the U.K., the U.S., and Mirzayanov, the whistleblower.
Mirzayanov echoed Smithson’s frustration with Russia’s denials of the program and the international community’s acceptance of what he called Moscow’s continuing “lies.” The chemical-weapons treaty, he complained, needs to be amended. The OPCW gives credibility to a sham in trying to convince people that “we are safe from chemical attack.” In fact, he said, the organization has simply required the destruction of tons of “useless” old weapons. The chemical-weapons convention, he said, does not require Russia and other producers to declare the Novichok’s chemical precursors under its list of banned substances. “Novichoks were designed to evade the treaty,” he said.
Mirzayanov’s book remains controversial among scientists and non-proliferation experts. Some worry that by publishing the Novichok family’s basic chemical formulas, Mirzayanov may have enabled non-state actors to make such deadly agents. He dismisses the criticism, saying he was careful not to publish formulas for the nerve agent “promoters,” the catalysts that help bind the two non-lethal chemicals into a deadly brew. “Promoters are the unique part of these weapons,” he asserts.
Though the U.S. has supported Britain in blaming Russia for the Skripal attack, Mirzayanov worries that President Trump’s unwillingness to criticize Putin personally will let Russia escape accountability for the assault and what he claims is its broader violation of the chemical-weapons convention. The nerve-agent attack on the Skripals is probably not unique, he warns. At the request of parliamentarian Yvette Cooper, Britain has reopened investigations of 14 other suspicious deaths.
“America and the West must not miss this moment as we did before,” Mirzayanov said. “Such clear-cut forensic evidence may not come again. Russia must finally be held accountable for what too many have denied for too long.” After almost two decades of warning about such chemical skullduggery, Mirzaynaov’s alarm may finally be heard.