Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Nerve Agent Attack in Britain Escalates Tensions with Russia

This is freakin' gnarly!

At Der Spiegel, "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.

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?
Keep reading.

BONUS: At the Guardian U.K., "Russia threatens retaliation after Britain expels 23 diplomats." And, "Sergei Skripal: Russia expels 23 U.K. diplomats as row deepens."

Still more, at the Observer U.K., "The Observer view on Theresa May’s response to Russia’s campaign against dissidents in Britain."

0 comments: