Novichock, what response would be appropriate for Russia?
by Philip Ingram MBE
With the Russians having failed to respond to Prime Minister Teresa Mays deadline to answer the simple question of “how this nerve agent came to be used” relating to the use of military grade Novichock in an attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal that put Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey in intensive care on Sunday 8th March in Salisbury. How should she respond, what are her options, can she really punish Putin and Russia?
The first thing is to look at Putin’s probable motive for carrying out the attack. Recognise his motive and tailor responses to stop him doing what he set out to achieve.
I believe it is probable that President Putin wanted to do 3 things, the first and his most important is to send a very clear and horrific message to any of his political or business dissenters; he can get them anywhere and in the most horrific way. The second was a message to the West and the wider world, he can operate with impunity where and when he wants, as he has done in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The final is personal, as an ex-KGB man the continued existence of a GRU ‘traitor’ will have gnawed away at the very fabric of his soul.
This was a political attack rather than an assassination attempt; the means to achieve this political attack required the assassination attempt.
Teresa May could unilaterally carry out a number of things that have almost become routine when a rogue nation goes too far, and these include:
- Expel Russian diplomats and known intelligence agents, as was done after the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB operative, in 2006 with polonium 210, a highly toxic radiological agent manufactured in a nuclear reactor.
- Increase economic sanctions as was done after the downing of MH17, the Malaysian Airliner shot down over Ukraine in 2014, the Russian annexation of Crimea and support for Rebels in Eastern Ukraine and freeze the financial assets of rich Russian oligarchs in the hope they will put pressure on Putin.
- Other ‘protest’ actions such as restrict Russians from coming to the UK through a visa ban, boycott the World Cup, remove the broadcasting license for Russian state-backed broadcast channels such as RT, restrict access to UK based websites from Russia or any number of other punitive options.
Will they work? The easiest way to answer that question is to look back in time and see if similar actions have worked before. The answer is a resounding no. The reason why is that they are not getting at the reasons why Putin probably ordered this attack.
If Teresa May resorts to any one or more of these options only she is in effect saying to Putin the doors of the UK are open for him to do what he wants, and he will!
What else could she do? A coordinated International response would have a greater effect by sending a clearer message. This doesn’t fall into NATO Article 5 territory of an attack on one nation meaning a military response from all.
The UK could ask NATO to invoke an Article 4 action where, “The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” This is in effect what is being done but what is it likely to result in? A stiff letter? NATO members scolding the respective Russian Ambassadors in their countries? Will Putin be concerned? In a word NO!
She could try to get GCHQ to carry out cyber-attacks on Russia and these could hurt, but would likely result in tit for tat escalation and the impact on British businesses could be catastrophic, especially during the Brexit negotiations. The Russian control of the information war and use of social media as a weapon is significantly more advanced than anything the West has. It is extremely well explained in the book Alternative War by JJ Patrick and hours after Teresa May’s statement in Parliament threats erupted from the Russian Embassy on Twitter.
However, the UK intelligence services need to increase their Russian focused counterintelligence operations which became diluted after the end of the Cold War. They need to remove the ability for Russian (and other) foreign intelligence operatives to use the UK as a ‘playground for spooks’.
Putin is acting as the bully in the playground, he is confident, arrogant and is developing if it hasn’t already developed, a god complex where he believes everything he does is right, and he is untouchable. That is his Achilles heel!
Going back to why he carried out the attack in Salisbury with an agent he knows would be tracked back to Moscow, it is a clear message to his political and business dissenters across the globe, “get on side or else.” In his 2102 Election, Putin got 63.6% of the vote, his personality is such that he wants to maintain that percentage or grow it in this weekend’s election. If it goes down, he will feel his authority is being undermined and will likely be extremely angry.
So, what should be done to have an effect? I believe Teresa May must do 2 things. Identify a mechanism for hurting Russian State business. Something like a punitive transaction tax for all international currency transactions coming from Russia via the city of London. This would likely require emergency legislation and for it to be successful it would need cross-party unity. If she attempted this and it failed, Putin would be emboldened.
It is too late to have a political effect on the Russian Presidential elections this weekend. But we need to take a long-term view and if the UK identified some strong political opposition to Putin, offering a safe sanctuary in the UK with assistance to develop an effective campaign for the next elections would really worry Putin. However, any individual associated a campaign like that would be a priority target for further Skripal type attacks.
These measures would hit at Putin’s probable motive for his use of Novichock on the streets of the UK and the next step is the international community following suit. This is a real test of Prime Minister Teresa May’s domestic and international strength.
Note: This blog will be updated as new information is received. The current version was updated at 1000 on 14th March 2018 – if you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE
Новичок – Novichok what do we know and what do we not know?
by Philip Ingram MBE
Prime Minister Teresa May confirming the agent used in the assassination attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, that put Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey in intensive care and contaminated a number of other people as Novichok, has clarified some of what the country speculated and raised a whole new set of questions; not least of which is what is Novichock? What do we know about it and more importantly what do we not know about it?
I find myself in the slightly unenviable position of being referred to as an expert given my military and military intelligence background, the fact that on my basic and master’s degree courses I studied chemical defence and through my military career I was frequently involved in planning and practising warfare in contaminated chemical environments. I have been fortunate to visit the amazing facilities at DSTL Porton Down on several occasions and get insights to what the scientists are doing to try and protect us not just from these deadly weapons but wider threats such as Disease X, recently referred to by the WHO as one of the next big threats. My insights are based on a little more knowledge than the average person and many years of study.
The one thing I can say with real certainty about Novichok, is that we don’t know a lot about it, so I would strongly advise commentators to be very careful about going into detailed descriptions. As a former intelligence officer, I have never liked what we referred to as “Google INT” or “Wiki INT” from sources that could be providing false collateral to each other and are very difficult to verify. Remember the Russians will have kept the real detail behind their Novichok programme highly classified and any information western governments have on it will be even more highly classified. Not surprisingly, journalism has the same caveats and we must remember to keep them.
Before I look at Novichok specifically the question I will answer is, “What are the military uses for persistent nerve agents?” Persistent nerve agents are designed as area denial weapons, like the chemical equivalent of a minefield, but one that could be very rapidly deployed by artillery bombardment or aircraft. They are designed to act rapidly and cause maximum living casualties to overwhelm medical evacuation capabilities, medical facilities and logistic chains thereby taking a commanders’ focus off warfighting. The final effect and this is one being felt in Salisbury and across the country, is psychological. A colourless, odourless, deadly threat where you first know you are contaminated when you exhibit symptoms and become a casualty!
So why develop Novichock? NATO forces were very well versed in conducting warfare in chemical environments and their protective clothing and equipment meant that the Russians would be concerned that their chemical weapons use doctrine would be rendered less effective. In addition, in the 1980’s the first real progress towards the Chemical Weapons Convention that would ban current weapons occurred with the 1978 Geneva Conference renamed in 1980 to the Conference on Disarmament. So, Russian scientists needed something that would defeat NATO protective equipment and defeat any rules imposed via a developing CWC.
So, what do we know or what can we assess?
Novichok is the collective name for a series of what are referred to as 4th generation nerve agents and as such are compounds that have the capacity to inactivate the enzyme acetylcholinesterase which is there to ‘turn off’ a trigger signal in a nerve caused by acetylcholine. If you can’t turn it off the nerve keeps firing and the nervous system throughout the body, its control mechanism, is destroyed.
Novichok agents were invented, probably in the 1980’s by the Russians. They were designed to be significantly more powerful than VX, to be undetectable using standard NATO chemical detection equipment, to defeat NATO chemical protective gear and to be safer to handle. We saw military personnel deployed into Salisbury wearing additional protective suits over their standard military issue ones but what look like standard respirators.
Novichok agents are designed to be very persistent, this means that inhalation is not the primary route of exposure. Contact with the skin, and with them being significantly more toxic than VX, in the minutest quantity, is the primary exposure route.
You can probably count the number of scientists from across the globe who have worked on Novichok agents and have a true knowledge of what they are and their effects on 2 hands; now that DSTL Porton Down have real samples to deal with, this number has just gone up. Additionally, the rationale behind why they were ‘invented’ is likely only an assessment.
Chemical weapons are as much a psychological weapon as one that causes injury as they are designed to destroy the will to fight through terror. We are certainly seeing the psychological effect on some of the population of Salisbury, but more significantly its political effect. Chemical weapons are often referred to as weapons of mass destruction (WMD), I believe they should more accurately be referred to as weapons of mass effect (WME) due to the panic they cause.
It is reported that Novichok agents may be able to come in binary form, two inert chemicals that when mixed form the agent, or provided in a fully active form. It could be a liquid or a powder. The reality is it can probably be delivered in a variety of means and, given its rarity, the full extent of its delivery means is not known but merely assessed.
What do we not know (yet)?
We do not know the sequence and location of contamination of Sergei Skripal, Yulia Skripal and Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey. We do not know what the contaminated place or object was that the Skripal’s first came in contact with the agent, we do not know how it got into the country or how it left a very carefully controlled Russian chemical warfare laboratory. We do not know the full extent of the contamination in various places around Salisbury and we do not know how it took so long for the Skripals to collapse if they were contaminated in their home.
Assessing all of the information available is interesting and complex. If the theories I outlined in my blogs here: http://ghmedia.wpengine.com/sergei-skripal-assassination/ and here: http://ghmedia.wpengine.com/sergei-and-yulia-skripal-assassination-attempt-further-comment/ continue to hold accuracy I still believe on the balance of probabilities Russian President Putin ordered assassination attempt using Novichok. This reinforces one of the effects he was trying to achieve (stick a proverbial 2 fingers up at the West), as he would have known it would be traced back to him. It also sends a very powerful message to any political dissenters about his confidence in his power base. This was a political attack rather than an assassination attempt; the means required the assassination attempt.
However, President Putin is a cunning ex-Intelligence commander. He will have built in various scenarios to suggest he wasn’t directly involved, what I call plausibly deniable excuses. Paraphrasing Donald Rumsfeld, there is stuff we know, there is stuff we know we don’t know but there is probably more that would fit into the category we don’t know what we don’t know.
Note: This blog will be updated as new information is received. The current version was updated at 0900 on 13th March 2018 – if you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE
Sergei and Yulia Skripal – additional assessment
by Philip Ingram MBE
The reporting around how Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned and how Det Sgt Nick Bailey came to get sufficient exposure to make him very seriously ill with another 20 or 21 casualties have to be treated for potential contamination raises a number of questions. The reason is, classic nerve agents, even thickened ones are not designed to be slow acting, they are designed to incapacitate first and foremost overwhelming evacuation and medical facilities, sending a clear psychological message to anyone operating in the area where chemical weapons are used.
One thing is clear, a psychological message has been sent to the residents of Salisbury, the politicians in London and any potential dissenters associated with the perpetrators. I still believe on the balance of probabilities that this is a direct assassination attempt ordered by Putin.
The Mail on Line has produced a very good list of the six ways they believe a hitman (or woman) could have contaminated the victims. Their list, with my comments, is:
POISONED FLOWERS: Skripal regularly placed plastic flowers on his late wife Liudmila’s grave, but last Sunday, unusually, according to a source, he took a fresh bunch. The deadly bouquet could have been taken to his house by a hit squad after being laced with poison.
- Comment: Nerve agents are designed to incapacitate quickly and kill more slowly. This would suggest a completely new type of slow working nerve agent, difficult to design, unpredictable in its delivery. The question is why, when so many alternatives already exist. The other point to consider is that use of the phrase ‘Nerve Agent’ is not wholly accurate and a specially designed mycotoxin specifically for this type of assassination attempt has been used (the reported symptoms don’t quite fit). The Russians have developed a weaponised mycotoxin with the designation T2.
Another organophosphate type compound from the carbamate group, such as Aldicarb, which a cholinesterase inhibitor in the same way as the nerve agents and exposure to high amounts of aldicarb can cause weakness, blurred vision, headache, nausea, tearing, sweating, and tremors in humans. High doses can be fatal to humans because it can paralyse the respiratory system.
Of note, several countries have lost stocks of Aldicarb in recent years. Aldicarb requires a higher dose so symptoms would develop more slowly with smaller doses but have the same effect. However, the contamination of Det Sgt Nick Bailey reduces the likelihood of it being a classic carbamate. Comment Ends.
A ‘TROJAN HORSE’: Some sources have suggested Yulia may have unwittingly brought a poisoned package, known as a Trojan Horse, into her father’s home. It would have had to remain stable until activated – possibly concealed in a gift of vodka or cigars.
- Comment: This is possible but is not specific enough for a focused assassination. There is too much potential for ‘collateral’ damage or it just not working as he didn’t feel like a drink or a cigar or the like. Comment Ends.
THE ZIZZI MEAL: Skripal and his daughter ate garlic bread and seafood risotto in a branch of Zizzi just before they fell ill, so their food could have been poisoned. But that would have required the hitman to have access to the kitchen – and know which dish would go to their table.
- Comment: It could be a contaminated glass, plate or cutlery, the table wiped with a contaminated cloth or a contaminated napkin or a brush past by a member of staff or another diner. All of these would leave significant traces at the restaurant. Comment Ends.
THE MILL PINT: The couple also went to The Mill pub in the Maltings which has been sealed off by police all week. The potent toxin could have somehow been slipped into their drinks without the bar staff being aware.
- Comment: It could be a contaminated glass, the table wiped with a contaminated cloth or a contaminated bar matt. All of these would leave significant traces at the pub. There could also have been a brush past from an assassin with a contaminated cloth in the public bar: Comment Ends
THE LETHAL LETTER: The would-be assassins could have simply had the deadly chemicals delivered to Skripal’s house in a letter or parcel. The ploy is simple but, because his symptoms appear to have developed rapidly while he was in Salisbury town centre rather than at home, seems less likely.
- Comment: This is possible but again is not specific enough for a focused assassination. There is too much potential for ‘collateral’ damage should the parcel or letter get damaged in the post or delivered to the wrong address. Additionally, a lot of post is screened, so there would be potential for it to be intercepted. Comment Ends.
THE FACE SPRAY: CCTV has captured images of an unknown couple walking close behind the Skripals just before they collapsed on a bench. They could have sprayed the nerve agent at them. The shocking tactic was used in the VX attack on a North Korean at an airport last year.
- Comment: It is more likely a wipe or brush past with a contaminated piece of clothing touching Skripal’s skin and could have happened whilst out walking, in the restaurant or bar. Comment Ends
What is critical to identifying the way the poison was delivered is looking at how and where Det Sgt Nick Bailey got contaminated, there has been confusing reporting about him being contaminated at the Shripal’s home or when tending to them at ‘The Maltings’ shopping area. Clarification of this is critical and working out the time from potential exposure to incapacitation will pinpoint where the attack took place. Additionally, the finding of the chemical agent at the Zizzi restaurant is important and doing a pattern analysis as to where the other casualties got contaminated.
Looking at all of the emerging evidence, and on the balance of probabilities. I still believe this is a probable Putin ordered assassination attempt using a variation of one of the classic ‘V’ agents outlined in my previous article possibly ‘thickened’ and potentially delivered in a reduced dose to allow the ‘exposure to incapacitation’ time to be extended with a dose being delivered by exposure to a contaminated object over an extended period of time. Again, this makes understanding how Det Sgt Nick Bailey was contaminated is a critical piece of evidence.
The Russians were also known to have developed Novichok (новичок meaning “newcomer” or “newbie”) agents that were significantly more powerful than than VX but designed to be undetectable using standard NATO chemical detection equipment, to defeat NATO chemical protective gear and to be safer to handle. We have seen military personnel wearing additional protective suits over their standard military issue ones but what look like standard respirators. These agents work in a similar way to other nerve agents and can be treated in a similar way.
Only time and more information will tell. I will caveat this report in that I am analysing press and government open reporting only. The newly released Public Health England advice is good general advice and highlights the minute risk there is to the general public from further contamination but emphasises that fact that the agent identified is likely to be a very persistent one.
Note: This blog will be updated as new information is received. The current version was updated at 1335 on 11th March 2018 – if you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE
Sergei Skripal – was it an assassination?
by Philip Ingram MBE
Updated 08 Mar
As someone who commanded an intelligence unit with a capability for the covert surveillance of Russian intelligence operations, I think I am qualified to do some analysis of detail that is coming out from the reporting of the Sergei Skripal incident.
I will open this with a caveat, I am analysing press reporting which is already speculation heavy but there are enough ‘pointers’ to allow me to bring some informed comment to be brought out. The detail is likely to change, especially regarding the potential attack vector, however, the analysis should remain sound.
The two questions an intelligence analyst asks about any incident are; does the capability exist and is there an intent to use the capability? Often one exists without the other, the threat is therefore considered low. Where the two exist, the threat is considered credible.
The Russians have the capability to carry out remote assassinations overseas and within the UK using sophisticated ‘poisons’ and they are not fixed on one agent. Georgi Markov was assassinated in London in 1978 by a Soviet-trained Bulgarian secret service agent using ricin, a highly toxic, naturally occurring compound, it was embedded in a pellet fired from an umbrella. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko an ex-KGB officer died after drinking green tea laced with polonium-210, a rare and potent radioactive isotope, again in London.
The symptoms reported in the Daily Mail and elsewhere are consistent with poisoning by an organophosphate-based nerve agent of which SARIN or GB has hit the press recently with its use in Syria by Russian backed Syrian forces. Last year the North Korean leaders’ half-brother Kim Jong-Nam was assassinated in Kuala Lumper Airport in Malaysia by another organophosphate-based nerve agent VX which is an abbreviation for “venomous agent X.” The Russians have access to very sophisticated nerve agents including GB and VX, that act within seconds. VX or a derivative would be a referred agent as it is less volatile and it being more potent than Sarin, it can have fatal effects in smaller doses absorbed through the skin.
Of course, there are many other similar compounds in the organophosphate and carbamate groups that can cause these symptoms. And with no confirmation of agent at the moment, the suggestion it could be novel or bespoke will remain. Caveating my comments that VX is possible and has been used before, scientists could have developed some other mycotoxin specifically for this type of assassination attempt. An issue is at least one of the first responders didn’t show symptoms till the next morning which is unusual for a nerve agent contamination but may not be immediately related.
Now the government have confirmed that a nerve agent was used it is worth having a look at some of the derivatives of the G series and V series that have been developed. I studied these as part of my first and masters degree courses, completing specialist projects on CBRNE threats, so again, I think I am qualified to do some analysis.
Nerve agents are compounds that have the capacity to inactivate the enzyme acetylcholinesterase which is there to ‘turn off’ a trigger signal in a nerve caused by acetylcholine. If you cant turn it off the nerve keeps firing. Some of the first agents to be developed were developed by the Nazi’s just before and during the second world war and were given the designator ‘G’ for German. The 3 most common are tabun (GA), sarin (GB), and soman (GD). The man credited with their development was Dr Gerhard Schrader who had been working on pesticides when he realised the power of what he had developed.
It was the British in1954 who first synthesized O-ethyl S-(2-diisopropylaminoethyl) methylphosphonothioate, the scientific name for what the Americans designated VX. The ‘V’ agents are at least 10 times more toxic than the most common ‘G’ agent, sarin (GB). One of the characteristics of the ‘V’ agents is that they were much less volatile than the ‘G’ agents and were therefore considered persistent agents, able to contaminate an area or individual for longer and not reliant on inhalation as much, their persistence and toxicity made skin absorption a significant exposure threat. There are other ‘V’ agents but much of the detail about them remains classified and they have code names like VE, V-gas, VG, and VM. Of note, V-gas is the Russian equivalent of VX and with VE, VG and VM are much rarer but act in a similar way. The world of chemical agents and especially nerve agents and mycotoxins is a complex, fascinating and frightening one, the rarer the agent used the easier it is to apportion blame once the substance has been identified as there are very few facilities across the globe with the sophisticated laboratories able to create and test new agents.
The Russians have the intent – Putin’s clear statements about what he thinks of those caught spying in a video that emerged in 2010 where he said, “Traitors will kick the bucket. trust me. These people betrayed their friends, their brothers in arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them,” is a clear enough statement of intent. In addition, the Russian history of similar assassinations and the clear message it sends to those who may try to undermine Putin’s power base. From a personal perspective, Putin will likely see Sergei Skripal as a traitor no matter what.
What is slightly more frightening is it also sends a message to the international community and to the UK in particular that the Russians are willing to operate with impunity across the globe. This is consistent with their military actions in Syria and their increased military presence globally as well as statements regarding new nuclear capabilities and pictures of new conventional weapon systems.
When in October 2017, Robert Hannigan, the former head of GCHQ, described Russia’s use of cyber-attacks as “a new way” of waging war against the country’s enemies he forgot his readings of Sun Tzu the 6th century Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher, arguably the greatest military tactician and strategic thinker ever, said in his book the Art of War, “All warfare is based on deception.” He also clearly forgot the Russian doctrine of маскировка (maskirovka) defined in the International Dictionary of Intelligence from 1990 as the Russian military intelligence (GRU) term for deception. Vladimir Putin would have “grown up” in an organisation where maskirovka was a normal part of everyday thinking and is part of their aggressive information operations doctrine.
The frightening analysis of Hannagan’s statement is that the UK intelligence services have taken their eye off the Russian threat. Resources monitoring it have been reallocated to the counter-terror threat whilst the Russians and other intelligence agencies have kept their numbers and activities at the same or greater levels in the Cold War. The UK has become an open playground for unmonitored espionage.
Putting all of this together, it is highly probable that this was a sanctioned assassination with a motivation to send a message to some of Putin’s opposition in the run-up to the Presidential Election and show ‘strength’ to his domestic audience as well as settle a score! Of course, it won’t be obvious that it was definitely Putin sanctioned as it is not unusual for Russian agencies to use plausibly deniable outlets for their “dirty work”. The BBC Series Mc Mafia had more than an element of truth running through its drama. The pictures of the extremely professional emergency services response show how credible the threat was and how all precautions were being taken. The fact that the investigation was quickly handed over from Wiltshire Constabulary to the MET suggests that the national implications were recognised quickly. I would assess that the agent used was a thickened version of one of the ‘V” group, possibly thickened V-gas but this is not based on any hard evidence.
Detailed analysis by DSTL Porton Down will be able to identify the cause and recommend the most appropriate medical treatments for Sergei Skripal and his daughter, as well as the others, affected as there can be long-term effects. Their luckiest break is that it happened only a short distance from Porton Down, one of the world’s leading chemical defence research centres. It is probable that whoever is ultimately responsible for this attack, they will have created a lot of false trails to generate an air of plausible deniability to act as a smokescreen. However, the authorities will know the culprits with some certainty.
Note: This blog will be updated as new information is received. The current version was updated at 2000 on 8th March 2018 – if you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE