Navalny and Novichok – a brief insight into Russia’s secretive weapon of mass destruction.

Written by Amanda Tirrell.

The prevalence of corruption and political domination is widespread within the far eastern reaches of Europe, and one country in particular is especially synonymous with such affairs. The Russian Federation.

Alexei Navalny / Photo via Reuters

Throughout its more recent history, Russia has been subjected to many different political regimes and influences; from the autocratic despotism of Tsarism; to the one-party state and censorship of the Communist Party; and finally, now to 2020, where Russia’s place as a federal republic is truly established under the watchful eye of Vladimir Putin.

With an article in the Guardian at the beginning of September 2020 naming opposition leader figurehead Alexei Navalny as the only name Putin would not openly say, politics in Russia has little room for opposition. The Russian political system can be summarised as an extremely presidentially influenced state since the 1993 Constitutional Crisis, in which Boris Yeltsin sought to increase presidential control. Whilst Russia has a dual presidential-parliamentary system, the increased control of the President and subsequent domination of the media by the ruling elite is reminiscent of the previous one party system.


Navalny, Politkovskaya, Verzilov, Skripal, Kivelidi, Ismailova, Zheleznyakov

When, in August 2020, the news broke of Alexei Navalny becoming extremely ill on a trans-Siberian flight, it did not take long for the blame to be pointed towards the Kremlin. Having been previously targeted multiple times, including a ‘Brilliant Green’ Zelyonka attack in 2017, Navalny was a man with a target on his back.

Before Navalny, various other political opponents of Putin’s had been attacked – including human rights advocate and critic Anna Politkovskaya ,who in 2004 was also poisoned on board an airplane via a cup of tea, and the lawyer for outspoken feminist band Pussy Riot Pytor Verzilov was suspected to have been poisoned in 2018. The Kremlin has denied involvement in both plots. Politkovskaya was remarkable for her coverage of the Chechen War – having been poisoned on board an Aeroflot plane on her way from the Belsan school siege as part of a negotiation force. The poison has never been disclosed, but Politkovskaya recovered enough to continue on to Belsan – and to write an article for the Guardian depicting her experience and memories of the attack. Politkovskaya was assassinated in 2006.

Photo showing a memorial event for Anna Politkovskaya outside the Novaya Gazeta offices a decade after her assassination. Photo via lexander Shcherbak / TASS.

More notoriously, internationally condemned attacks such as the Salisbury poisonings - in March 2018 against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, also used the same nerve agent used against Navalny – Novichok. A decade earlier, another former spy Alexander Litvinenko was also targeted, again on British soil and by a nerve agent, but unfortunately would pass away from radiation poisoning as a result of the attack.

Prior to Skripal, the only people who had come into known contact with Novichok were a Businessman Ivan Kivelidi in 1995, his secretary Zara Ismailova a month later, and scientist Andrei Zheleznyakov who became accidentally exposed to the agent in 1987. All three victims died as a result of their poisoning.


A Weapon of Mass Destruction

In Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Essential Reference Guide, Fitzpatrick’s entry on Novichok conveys that the group of nerve agents is undetectable to western technology (especially those within NATO), can be used in various forms such as liquid or aerosol, as well as being deployed alongside an explosive device. Whilst the highly potent agent only became known within the twenty first century, Fitzpatrick states that from 1968 it was developed at the Red Army’s Chemical Research Institute, in an isolated city in Uzbekistan.

The basis of Novichok stems from fertilisers and pesticides which, according to The Essential Reference Guide, allows Novichok to be camouflaged as something much less deadly.

The use of a nerve agent – should any of the previously mentioned attacks have been ordered by the Russian government as we are assuming – goes against the terms of the global 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which Russia has signed and ratified, although Novichok’s deceitful composition blurs this.

Clean up after the 2018 Skripal poisoning. Photo via Peter Nicholls/Reuters.

Russia, along with the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan and others, is one of fourteen signatories of the CWC (Chemical Weapons Convention) which still holds ‘known chemical weapons production facilities’ – though these have all reportedly been decommissioned. Russian news outlet ‘Tass’ reported in 2017 that as of September (2017) the comprehensive roster of Russian chemical weapons had been destroyed, in line with the CWC guidelines. The article, written in November 2017, was mere months before the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury.

It is noteworthy that Russia is not the only country in the world to be indicted into a nerve agent poisoning within recent years. The infamous North Korea, which is not a state which has signed, ratified or joined the CWC, made headlines with its VX Nerve Agent attack in 2017. Kim Jong-Nam, elder son of Kim Jong-Il and previously reported heir to the political Kim dynasty and dictatorship, was poisoned in Kuala Lumpur. The North Korean government deny all involvement, and two women – one Indonesian, one Vietnamese – who were reportedly approached by North Korean agents, were subjected to a murder trial before one case was dropped and the other commuted to a lesser sentence. As of September 2020, both women have been released. Unlike Russia and Novichok, VX was not created or discovered by the North Koreans, but instead discovered at Porton Down in the 1950s. Cuba is another noteworthy former deployer of VX, having targeted insurgents during the Angolan Civil War of the 1980s.


Returning to Russia

The Skripal poisoning has never entirely dropped from the public radar since 2018, with recent dramatisations such as The Salisbury Poisonings in June 2020 revisiting the case. Following the poisoning, up to 150 Russian diplomats were globally expelled, and the events in Salisbury even led to the boycott of the 2018 World Cup by Icelandic diplomats – despite the football team playing in the competition. The poisoning was largely ignored on state media, until the media made warnings to the Russian people to instead not move to England due to “strange occurrences”. Despite calls in 2018 for Russia to release information on the nerve agent to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Novichok still remains to this day a secretive and terrifying weapon of mass destruction.

Navalny was airlifted to the Charité Hospital in Berlin despite brief opposition within days of his poisoning. It was in Berlin that doctors pinpointed a Novichok agent as the cause of his illness, and as of the time of this article he is alive and recovering. Whilst reports have shifted recently away from the cup of tea in the airport scenario to an in-hotel poisoning in Tomsk, Navalny’s team have stated he will return to Russia and continue advocating for reform and anti-corruption in his homeland.

Further reading: Anna Politskaya’s article in The Guardian, accounting her poisoning as well as her experiences in Chechya.


About the author

Amanda Tirrell is a history graduate from the University of Kent, focusing on modern European politics. In her spare time Amanda enjoys making fancy coffee, travelling (when the world isn’t in the midst of a pandemic) and is currently studying German alongside her MA in European History degree at Newcastle University.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.

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