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.