Russian chemist Vil Mirzayanov who now lives in the U.S. and was directly involved with developing the Novichok nerve toxin tells ERR in an interview that the aim was not to kill Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny but rather maim him for life – a fate he describes as far worse than death.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that traces of a Novichok agent were found in Navalny's body. How many toxins does this group have and which one was used to poison Navalny?
There are many different variants of Novichok. It was synthesized by Pyotr Kirpichev back in the 1970s. Two of these substances were adopted by the Soviet military – A-230 and A-232. They did not want the other substances, probably because they did not meet the criteria the army had for battle toxins. Kirpichev synthesized a lot of substances. I know of two others. It seems that we're dealing with substance A-242 of the Novichok series here. It is a phosphonate – a solid substance that is far more toxic than the better-known Novichok variants. The entire series is vast. I know of at least six variants, and it is likely that A-242 was used to poison Navalny. Because of its toxicity, only a very small amount of the substance is needed to poison a person.
Why was no one else harmed?
The substance has a very low threshold – that is to say its concentration is very low. If he was poisoned through his digestive tract, it could not endanger the people around him. And even if it was put on his underwear, as has been suggested, it could not have gone far as the fumes have a very low concentration. That is why Navalny did not poison others. I believe they used this particular substance. And what's paramount: because the substance can be used in very small amounts, those who planned it believed that traces of it would disappear from Navalny's body in two or three days. That is why they used this particular agent. So, the GRU is evolving and learning from its mistakes.
You say that the GRU learns from its mistakes, but both Sergei Skripal and Navalny survived. Why did the poisoners fail on both occasions?
Perhaps the goal was to make him an invalid and knock him out that way. It is a horrible form of vengeance as it is likely Navalny will never recover. He will forever be an invalid. The GRU was sure the substance would disappear from his body. However, modern powerful chromatographs and mass spectrometers make it possible to detect minute concentrations by magnifying the signal. That allows you to get the spectrum and even the molecular ion that effectively gives you the formula.
Modern devices have come a long way, while Omsk and other such towns do not have this kind of equipment because of how expensive it is. Back when I was still an active chemist, such devices cost around $1 million. They likely go for $10 million today. I'm sure the equipment exists in Moscow, but because information from Moscow moves through security forces, it absolutely cannot be trusted.
You published the formula for Novichok. The Russian authorities are claiming that the formula is out there and that not just Russia, but also the Czech Republic, for example, has stockpiles. They claim that this makes it impossible to conclude the substance is manufactured in Russia or used by Russia.
I published a book called "State secrets: an insider's chronicle of the Russian chemical weapons program" in 2007 that included the formula for A-242. The problem is that no matter how well you refine it, you will not be able to achieve a concentration of 100 percent. The best one can do is 80 percent and that is stellar quality. What is left over? You are left with half-stuff. And those leftover substances used to make the agent are different in Russia and the Czech Republic. That is how we can know the origin of substances. The method is used in analytical chemistry and mass spectrometry, meaning that the origin can be ascertained, which is likely what the Germans did.
Would that require them to have a sample to compare Navalny's test results to in order to determine if it really is Novichok.
A sample is not necessary. After I published the formula, they acquired a sample in the Hague (headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – ed.) or England as well as corresponding mass spectrometry data that they shared with allies. These mass spectrums can be fed to a mass spectrometer to eliminate the need for the original substance. Having the data is sufficient. That is to say the substance does not have to be present in every country.
The Russian prosecutor's office asked their German colleagues for Navalny's test results, saying they are necessary for launching a criminal investigation. Were you in charge of investigating Navalny's poisoning in Russia, would you need test results from Germany? Or is it a trick by the Kremlin?
Of course it's a trick. At the same time, Germany cannot really refuse to share test results and mass spectrums. It is the start of a major dispute, which is where this thing will end up. No one will give Russia the spectrum as it would allow them to speculate that something is off… It is a vicious circle. One that should be avoided. That is precisely what the Kremlin wants – to drag things out over several years until the matter loses its poignancy. Their task now is to buy time.
One version of events suggests that doctors initially ran tests and gave Navalny an antidote. But they could not understand what was happening to him. Whether he was poisoned, had a carbohydrate imbalance, wrong diet etc. However, when Navalny was sent to Germany, they did not find any toxins in his body. While they did now. This means that Navalny was poisoned abroad. Does this version seem likely?
It cannot be taken seriously as Germany could demand to see proof in the form of chromatograph, mass spectrometer data. It doesn't exist.
As a specialist who participated in the creation of the toxin, are you not surprised Novichok did not succeed when used on the Skripals in the UK or on Navalny? People develop serious complications after they are exposed to Novichok but don't die. How to explain that?
First of all, they used a completely different substance in the UK – A-232, its binary variant. (A binary form is made up of two parts that are harmless when separate but become toxic when combined – ed.) The binary form yields little in terms of the final product for a maximum of 70 percent. Secondly, it takes time. A binary form needs a push for the chemical reaction to take place. After that, you need to smear the final product onto the door handle. Time is short. Then we have the climate – England usually has acid fog. All of it worked to reduce the concentration of the substance. What is more, the Skripals received timely medical attention. Had they been kept in the same conditions as Navalny, they would surely have perished. The GRU messed up there.
Regarding this recent incident, the aim was not to kill Navalny but to put him out of commission, make him an invalid. A very small amount of the A-242 substance is perfect for this. They were experienced and had more success this time around. However, they still made a mistake when they believed signs of the substance would disappear after three days. We did not know that trace amounts of the substance are retained in the liver and do not break up. The Germans knew that and used it to test Navalny. It does not disappear after three days and we have no idea how long it takes.
After the Skripal case in 2019, Russia proposed adding all Novichok group substances to the convention against chemical weapons. This obligates all countries, Russia included, not to process, manufacture and use these substances. Is it possible a random person could have access to the substance?
I believe it is utterly impossible. The substance can be synthesized and turned into an agent of terror only in laboratories with expert staff and where a school of creating and testing toxins exists. Moscow has the only such school at Enthusiasts Boulevard 53. It is the State Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology. Their work is ongoing. They have synthesized enough of the substance to meet the needs of the GRU – the convention allows that much.
It allows it for research and scientific purposes…
Yes, it is allowed to synthesize and stockpile up to 200 kilograms of the substance. This "catch" was added when the convention was signed. That is precisely why I was against its ratification. Unfortunately, I was right. Now, the State Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology is creating a terrorist weapon on legal grounds.
Editor: Marcus Turovski