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Extrajudicial Killings in the Chemical Age: Are We Facing a Novichok Crisis?

By Robynne Grant, BSc Politics & International Relations at Bristol University

Novichok first began to emerge on the global radar when ex-Soviet chemist Vil Mirzayanov published documents pertaining to its existence in 1992. Under Stalin Novichok was tested on political prisoners in search of “the ultimate weapon for the state's assassins”, and decades later Novichok remains a popular choice of weapon due to its stability as an ultra-fine power. A recent spate of Novichok poisonings across the globe, accompanied by contradictory narratives of blame and responsibility, invites to re-examine recent attacks and ask ourselves, are we facing a Novichok crisis?

The Cases

Between 28 April and 4 May 2015, Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, his son and a plant production chief all fell ill within days of each other. Despite being in a coma for a period, Gebrev survived and ordered tests to be undertaken in Finland – the results of which suggested he had been poisoned by an Organophosphate. Further inquiry by the investigative journalism website Bellingcat found that several GRU officers had travelled to Bulgaria at the same time as the poisonings under fake identities. Surveillance footage released by Bulgarian authorities showed one of the men “approaching several cars in an underground garage where the poison victims’ cars had been parked”.

Gebrev has been linked to the obstruction of Russian arms contacts across Africa and Asia, perhaps a motive for the attack. Further reports show Gebrev supplying arms to Ukraine, although he denies these allegations. As of August 2020, the case has been suspended due to an inability to proceed without physical detention of the suspects and the absence of international legal assistance.

Almost three years later, former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, fell ill on a public bench in the city of Salisbury in the UK. Biological samples sent to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed the presence of Novichok. On the 5th of September, the UK charged two Russians, who upon investigation were found to be GRU members, with the attempted murder of the Skripals. One of the men, GRU Major General Denis Sergeev, was discovered to be in Bulgaria at the time of the 2015 Gebrev poisoning. Despite the issue of arrest warrants, neither suspects have answered for the crime as “Russia does not extradite its own nationals”.

Much like Gebrev, Sergei was implicated in some level of dissent. However, the Salisbury case was different in that there was significant collateral damage. Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey and two civilians were contaminated as well, one of the civilians later succumbing to the poisoning. The attack garnered significant international attention, with Theresa May stating that it amounted to “an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom”.

In 2019, an article was published declaring a ‘Novichok threat’, and that the next attack was only a matter of time. Less than a year later, primary Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny fell ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. Prior to the alleged assassination, Navalny had been lauded “the most popular and capable leader of the new generation of the opposition”, with a long career in anti-corruption activism. His 2017 documentary ‘On Vam ne Dimon’ (He is not Dimon to you), detailed the corrupt nature of Russian politics. Within weeks the film had accumulated over 20 million views, instigating a wave of nationwide protests. Authorities have sought to repress Navalny’s message through ‘trumped up’ fraud charges, legal repression of unsanctioned rallies, and administrative ‘hurdles’.

On the 20th of August 2020, Navalny fell ill while travelling with members of his Anti-Corruption Foundation. The plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, where he was taken to a local medical facility. Samples sent to Moscow for analysis came back negative, and Russian officials suggested that he was suffering from a metabolic disorder or diet-related condition. Following a brief diplomatic battle, Navalny was evacuated to Berlin two days later. Navalny’s aide had travelled back to the hotel room following the incident and recovered three water bottles, which they passed onto German authorities for testing. Samples taken from the bottles, along with biomarkers in Navalny’s blood and urine, confirmed suspicions that he had indeed been poisoned with a nerve agent “belonging to the Novichok group”.

International Response A statement released by Theresa May following the Salisbury attack framed the events “against a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian State aggression”. In fact, the Russian tradition of extrajudicial killings spans centuries. As one repressive regime falls, another one takes its place; thus fostering a culture of violence and counter-violence. In 2006, the Federation Council passed law that authorised the president to order extrajudicial killings abroad, framed within discourses of national (in)security. This gave Putin far-reaching powers, allowing him to make decisions which are “not subject to either international accountability or parliamentary oversight” when the state is perceived to be under threat.

These attacks can be framed within the narrative of a ‘hybrid war’ between Russia and the West that has gained momentum since the illegal annexation of the Crimea in 2014 – a move that saw Russia’ expulsion from the G8. Since then, implications in cyber-attacks/disinformation campaigns, election meddling, and the crisis in Ukraine have only seen relations deteriorate further.

Following the events in Salisbury in 2018, the US and several European nations expelled hundreds a number of Russian diplomats. In October 2020, the EU publicly sanctioned a Russian research institute, known as GosNIIOKhT, for its alleged role in the production of Novichok used to poison Navalny.

Conclusion - A Novichok Crisis?

What comes next? Russia signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997, with the Director-General of the OPCW confirming that the Russian Federation had successfully destroyed their 39,967 metric ton stockpile of chemical weapons a decade later. However, the evidence of chemical weapon assassinations appears to be stacking up. The implications of continued impunity may well lead to an increase in the use of chemical weapons, not just by the Russian state, but by other international players. The outcome of the US election will undoubtedly impact the future of US-Russian relations. Biden has been a vocal critic of Trump’s indifference to Russian foul-play, equating his “silence" with "complicity”. His recent election will likely see a U-turn in US foreign policy, as he has vowed to aggressively counter Russia’s disregard for international norms of global peace and security.

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