Veil of secrecy may soon be lifted on Novichok nerve agent used to attack Skripal

Sergei SkripalThe chemical structure and action mechanism of a top-secret family of nerve agents known as novichoks may soon be available to a wider pool of researchers through its inclusion into the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) list of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The term novichok (meaning ‘newbie’ in Russian) was given by Western scientists to a class of rarely used nerve agents that were developed in the Soviet Union and Russia between 1971 and the early 1990s.

The first public discussion about the existence of these agents took place in the early 1990s, when Vil Mirzayanov, a chemical warfare expert working for the Soviet military, revealed their existence. However, Western intelligence agencies have discouraged public scientific research on these nerve agents, fearing that such activities could reveal their chemical structure and mechanism of action. That could in turn facilitate the proliferation of novichok nerve agents worldwide.

But this attitude shifted drastically after March 2018, when —according to British intelligence— Russian spies used novichok in an attempt to kill Sergei Skripal, a Russian defector to Britain. The British government claims that Russians spies smuggled novichok into Britain by hiding it inside an imitation perfume bottle.

The attempt on Skripal’s life failed, but it prompted the United States, Canada and the Netherlands to propose that two categories of novichoks be chemically identified and added to the CWC list of Schedule 1 chemical weapons. If that were to happen, members of the OPCW —including Russia— would be required to declare and promptly destroy any stockpiles of novichoks in their possession.

Russia’s initial reaction was to oppose the proposal by the United States, Canada and the Netherlands. The Russian OPCW delegation questioned the proposal’s scientific validity and dismissed it as politically motivated. However, according to a report published yesterday in the leading scientific journal Science, Moscow has now agreed with the proposal to list two classes of novichoks in the CWC list, and even proposed adding a third class of the obscure nerve agent to the list. Russia also proposed the inclusion into the CWC list of two families of carbamates —organic compounds with insecticide properties, which the United States is reputed to have included in its chemical weapons arsenal during the Cold War.

According to the Science report, the OPCW Executive Council has already approved Russia’s proposal, which means that the organization is now close to classifying novichoks as Schedule 1 nerve agents. If this happens, academic researchers in the West and elsewhere will be able for the first time to collaborate with defense laboratories in order to research the chemical structure, as well as the mechanism of action, of novichoks. This is likely to produce computer models that will shed unprecedented light on the symptoms of novichoks and the various methods of treating them. But they will also provide information about the chemical structure of the nerve agent, which may eventually lead to proliferation concerns.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 October 2019 | Permalink

Alleged third suspect in Skripal poison attack identified by investigative website

Diplomatic Academy of RussiaAn investigative website has linked a graduate of an elite intelligence academy in Moscow with the attempted assassination of a Russian former double spy in Britain last year. Reports last year identified Dr. Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin (cover name ‘Alexander Petrov’) and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga (cover name ‘Ruslan Boshirov’) as the two men that tried to kill Sergei Skripal in the English town of Salisbury in March 2018. Skripal, a former officer in Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, was resettled in Salisbury in 2010, after spending several years in a Russian prison for spying on behalf of Britain. But he and his daughter Yulia almost died last March, after they were poisoned with a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The Kremlin denies that Mishkin and Chepiga —believed to be GRU officers— had any role in the attack.

Last week, the Russian investigative news site Bellingcat alleged that a third man may have been involved in the attempt to assassinate Skripal. The man used the name Sergey Fedotov, said Bellingcat, but added that the name was probably a cover that was concocted by Russia’s intelligence services. On Thursday, the website said it was able to identify the so-called third man as Denis Vyacheslavovich Sergeev, a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Diplomatic Academy is one of the most prominent educational institutions in the country and its graduates enter the Foreign Service. However, many of its graduates are elite members of Russian intelligence, said Bellingcat. Earlier this month, the investigative website said that Sergeev traveled extensively in the Middle East, Asia and Europe between 2010 and 2015, using the operational name Sergey Fedotov. It also claimed that Sergeev/Fedotov was in Bulgaria in late April 2015, when Emilian Gebrev, a wealthy local defense industry entrepreneur, fell violently ill. Gebrev was hospitalized for signs of poisoning along with his son and one of his company’s executives for several days. All three made a full recovery.

Bellingcat added that it was able to name the alleged Russian intelligence operative following a four-month investigation that was aided by another Russian news website known as The Russia Insider, Czech newspaper Respekt, and Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat daily. But it also acknowledged that Fedotov’s alleged role in the Skripal assassination remained “unclear” and that authorities in the United Kingdom had not publicly identified a third suspect in the attempted murder. Meanwhile, British newspaper The Guardian said yesterday that it was told by Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov that a team of British investigators were “on the ground” in Sofia to investigate possible links between the Skripal and Gebrev cases.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 February 2019 | Permalink

Reports allege third man was involved in poisoning of Sergei Skripal

Sergei SkripalNew reports from Russian investigative sites claim that a third man using a fake name was involved in the attempted assassination of former double spy Sergei Skripal in England last year. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer, was resettled in the English town of Salisbury in 2010, after spending several years in a Russian prison for spying on behalf of Britain. But he and his daughter Yulia almost died in March 2018, after they were poisoned with a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, though the Kremlin denies it had any role in it. Two assailants have so far been identified by British intelligence. They have been named as Dr. Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin —cover name ‘Alexander Petrov’— and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga —cover name ‘Ruslan Boshirov’. Both are said to be employees of the Russian military intelligence agency known as the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, commonly referred to as the GRU. The two men spoke on Russian television last year, denying any involvement in the attack on the Skripals. Their whereabouts since their television interview remain unknown. Moscow denies that it had any role in the attack.

In October of last year, the Russian investigative news site Fontanka claimed that a third man under the name of Sergey Fedotov, may have been involved in the attack on Skripal. Last Thursday, another Russian investigative news site, Bellingcat, said that the name Sergey Fedotov appears to have been created out of thin air for operational purposes by Russia’s intelligence services. According to Bellingcat, Fedotov appears to have no past prior to 2010, when his identity was invented using the same techniques that the fake identities of ‘Petrov’ and ‘Boshirov’ were concocted by the GRU. Moreover, Fedotov’s records show that he traveled extensively in the Middle East, Asia and Europe between 2010 and 2015. The Russian news site claims that he was in Bulgaria in late April 2015, when Emilian Gebrev, a wealthy local defense industry entrepreneur, fell violently ill. Gebrev was hospitalized for signs of poisoning along with his son and one of his company’s executives for several days, eventually making a full recovery. As the Bulgarian businessman was being taken to hospital, Fedotov skipped his return flight out of Sofia and instead drove to Istanbul, Turkey, where he bought a one-way airline ticket to Moscow, says Bellingcat.

The BBC’s Gordon Corera said he contacted the Russian embassy in London and the Kremlin in Moscow. Both sources strongly refuted the Bellingcat report. A Kremlin spokesman cautioned the BBC to be skeptical about Bellingcat’s report, since “we don’t know what [its] authors based their work on [or] how competent they are”. British Police told Corera that they were “still investigating whether further suspects were involved” in the attack on Skripal and were “not prepared to discuss” details pertaining to “an ongoing investigation”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 February 2019 | Permalink

Nerve agent used in Skripal attack ‘could have killed thousands’ say experts

GRUThe amount of poison smuggled into Britain for a near-fatal attack on Russian former spy Sergei Skripal was powerful enough to kill “thousands of people”, according those leading the investigation into the incident. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer, was resettled in the English town of Salisbury in 2010, after spending several years in a Russian prison for spying for Britain. But he and his daughter Yulia almost died in March of this year, after being poisoned by a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, though the Kremlin denies that it had a role in it.

Investigators from Britain and other Western countries have identified the poison used in the attack on the Skripals as novichok. The term (meaning ‘newbie’ in Russian) was given by Western scientists to a series of rarely used nerve agents that were developed the Soviet Union and Russia between 1971 and the early 1990s. It is believed that the poison was smuggled into the United Kingdom hidden inside an imitation perfume bottle, which had been fitted with a custom-made pump used to apply the poison. British authorities have determined that the assailants sprayed the poison on the doorway —including the handle— of the Skripals’ house in Salisbury. They then discarded the perfume bottle, containing the leftover novichok, in a garbage can before leaving the country in a hurry. The bottle was eventually recovered by Salisbury resident Charlie Rowley. His partner, Dawn Sturgess, died of poisoning after she applied some of the contents of the bottle on her wrists. British government scientists have since been examining the contents of the perfume bottle found inside Sturgess’ home.

On Thursday, BBC Television’s Panorama investigative program aired an episode entitled “Salisbury Nerve Agent Attack: The Inside Story”. Among those interviewed was Dean Haydon, a British Deputy Assistant Commissioner who is leading the ongoing investigation into the Salisbury attack. He told Panorama that “a significant amount” of novichok was left behind by the assailants inside the discarded perfume bottle. The amount of poison in the discarded bottle could have been used to kill “thousands”, he said, adding that the way it was applied to the Skripals’ home was “completely reckless”. The BBC program’s producers also spoke to a British government chemical weapons scientist, identified only as “Tim”, who is credited with having identified the substance used on the Skripals. He told the program that less than 100g of novichok was used against the Skripals, leaving the vast majority of the nerve agent inside the bottle. Given that novichok is “one of the deadliest substances known”, which has a “unique ability to poison individuals at very low concentrations”, the scientist said he was shocked by the amount of poison that was smuggled into Britain by the assailants.

The assailants have been identified by British intelligence as Dr. Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin (cover name “Alexander Petrov”) and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga (cover name “Ruslan Boshirov”). Both men are said to be employees of the Russian military intelligence agency known as the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, commonly referred to as the GRU. Moscow denies that it had any role in the attack on the Skripals.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 November 2018 | Permalink

US intelligence reevaluates safety of Russian defectors in light of Skripal poisoning

CIAIntelligence officials in the United States are feverishly reassessing the physical safety of dozens of Russian defectors, in light of the case of Russian double spy Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned in England last March. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer who spied for Britain, was resettled in the English town of Salisbury in 2010 by the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). But he and his daughter Yulia made international headlines in March, after they were poisoned by a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, though the Kremlin denies that it had a role in it.

Like MI6, the US Central Intelligence Agency also has a protection program for foreign nationals whose life may be at risk because they spied for the US. The CIA’s protection division, called the National Resettlement Operations Center, helps resettle and sometimes hide and protect dozens of foreign agents, or assets, as they are known in CIA lingo. But following the Skripal case, some CIA resettlement officials have expressed concern that protection levels for some foreign assets may need to be significantly raised. The New York Times, which published the story last week, said that it spoke to “current and former American intelligence officials”, which it did not name. In light of those concerns, US counterintelligence officials have been carrying out what The Times described as “a wide-reaching review” of every Russian asset who has been resettled in the US. The purpose of the review is to assess the ease with which these former assets can be traced through their digital footprint on social media and other publicly available information.

According to the paper, several Russians who defected to the US after working for the CIA and other US intelligence agencies were tracked down by the Kremlin in recent years. In the mid-1990s, says The Times, the CIA actually found an explosive device placed under the car of a Russian defector living in the US. More recently, US intelligence traced the movements of a suspected Russian assassin who visited the neighborhood of a resettled Russian defector in Florida. In the past, Russian CIA assets who have been resettled in the US have voluntarily revealed their whereabouts by reaching out to relatives back in Russia out of homesickness. In some cases, they have left the US in order to meet a lover who may have been planted by the Russian spy services —with sometimes fatal consequences.

In addition to the US, at least one more country has initiated a thorough review of the way it protects former Russian assets living in its territory in light of the Skripal case. As intelNews reported in March, the British secret services tightened the physical security of dozens of Russian defectors living in Britain only a week after the attempted murder of Skripal. Britain’s security services reportedly viewed the attack on Skripal as an intelligence failure and launched a comprehensive review of the risk to British-based Russian double spies and defectors from “unconventional threats”. The latter included attacks with chemical and radiological weapons.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 September 2018 | Permalink

Poisoned Russian spy advised Spanish intelligence, say officials

Sergei SkripalSergei Skripal, the Russian double agent who was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in England earlier this year, worked with Spanish intelligence after his defection to the United Kingdom, according to sources. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer who spied for Britain in the early 2000s, had kept a low profile while living in the English town of Salisbury. He was resettled there in 2010 by the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), after he was released from a Russian prison. But he and his daughter Yulia made international headlines in March, after they were poisoned by a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, but the Kremlin denies that it had a role in it.

The attempt to kill Skripal surprised some intelligence observers due to the fact that the Russian government had officially pardoned the double agent prior to exchanging him with Russian spies who had been caught in the West. As intelNews wrote in May, “typically a spy who has been pardoned as part of an authorized spy-swap will not need to worry about being targeted by the agency that he betrayed. If it indeed tried to kill Skripal, the Russian government may therefore have broken the unwritten rules of the espionage game”. Eventually, however, it was revealed that, instead of retiring after his defection to the UK, Skripal traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, where he advised local intelligence agencies on how to defend against Russian espionage. The double agent participated in MI6-sponsored events in which he briefed intelligence practitioners in at least two countries, Estonia and the Czech Republic. These activities may have convinced the Kremlin that Skripal had broken the unwritten conditions of his release, namely that he would not participate in any intelligence-related activities against Russia.

Now The New York Times has claimed that, in addition to consulting for Czech and Estonian spies, Skripal also visited Spain, where he met with officers from the country’s National Intelligence Center (CNI). Citing an unnamed Spanish former police chief and Fernando Rueda, a Spanish intelligence expert, The Times said that Skripal advised the CNI about the activities of Russian organized crime in Spain and the alleged connections between Russian mobsters and the Kremlin. When he traveled to Spain under MI6 protection, said the paper, Skripal was effectively returning to the place where he had been initially recruited to spy for the British. Skripal spent several years in Spain, said The Times, serving as a military attaché at the Russian embassy in Madrid. It was there that he began to work secretly for MI6. However, the precise timing of Skripal’s return trips to Spain after 2010, as well as the content of his discussions with Spanish intelligence officials, remain unknown, according to The Times.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 September 2018 | Permalink

NATO obtained Soviet Novichok nerve agents through German intelligence in 1990s

Sergei SkripalSome North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states obtained access to the Soviet Union’s so-called ‘Novichok’ nerve agents in the 1990s, through an informant recruited by German intelligence, according to reports. NATO countries refer to ‘Novichok-class’ nerve agents to describe a series of weaponized substances that were developed by the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia from the early 1970s to at least 1993. They are believed to be the deadliest nerve agents ever produced, but Moscow denies their very existence. A type of Novichok agent, described by British scientists as A234, is said to have been used in March of this year by the person or persons who tried to kill Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England. Skripal is a former Russian military intelligence officer who spied for Britain in the early 2000s and has been living in England ever since he was released from a Russian prison in 2010.

On Thursday, two German newspapers, Die Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Zeit, and two regional public radio broadcasters, WDR and NDR, said that the NATO alliance has had access to the chemical composition of Novichok nerve agents since the period immediately following the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Specifically, the reports claimed that the access was gained through a Russian scientist who became an informant for the German Federal Intelligence Service, known as the BND. The scientist struck a deal with the BND: he provided the spy agency with technical information about the Novichok agents in exchange for safe passage to the West for him and his immediate family. Initially, the German government was reluctant to get its hands on material that was —and remains— classified as a weapon of mass destruction by international agencies. But eventually it asked for the chemical composition of the Novichok nerve agents and even acquired samples from the Russian informant.

According to media reports, the BND proceeded to share information about the chemical composition of the Novichok nerve agents with key NATO allies, including Sweden, France, Britain and the United States. The sharing of such a sensitive substance was approved by the then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, said the reports. In the following years, a handful of NATO countries proceeded to produce what media reports described as “limited quantities” of Novichok agents, reportedly in order to experiment with various defense measures against them and to produce antidotes. Russia has denied accusations that it was implicated in Skripal’s poisoning and has argued that other countries, some of them NATO members, have the capacity to produce Novichok agents.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 May 2018 | Permalink