By Askold Krushelnycky, in London, for StopFake
British authorities have seemingly made a crucial breakthrough in their investigation into Russia’s use of the deadly military-grade “Novichok” nerve agent on UK soil which has killed a British woman, and nearly took the lives of four other victims, including a former Russian spy living in the UK.
The Associated Press news agency reported that a reliable British security source said that police investigating the poisonings have identified several Russians involved by examining hundreds of hours of CCTV recordings in the city where the assassins tried to kill Skripal, and at Britain’s airports and other places of entry into the country.
British authorities have declined to comment on the AP report. But the UK government insists that Russia is behind the outrage.
Dawn Sturgess, 44, a mother of three children, died on July 8 from the same poison a Kremlin assassin used in a botched attempt to kill former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, a few months ago in the British city of Salisbury.
Ms Sturgess, and her partner, Charlie Rowley, 45, fell ill on July 1 after coming into contact with Novichok poison. She died a week later; he was finally released from hospital on July 20.
Police believe the assassin smeared the highly toxic nerve agent on the door to Skripal’s home and then dumped left-over poison in a perfume bottle in or near Salisbury. Investigators think the British couple, known for sifting through garbage dumpsters for items they could sell, found the perfume. Ms Sturgess is thought to have sprayed herself with it.
The Skripals survived after British doctors, advised by biological weapons experts, fought for weeks to save their lives.
Britain’s home secretary (interior minister), Sajid Javid, accused Russia of using Britain as a “dumping ground for poison” and police are treating Ms Sturgess’s death as murder.
Russia sole manufacturer of Novichok
The deadly toxin’s name derives from the Russian for “little new one” because Novichok was a new, advanced nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War in the 1970s and 1980s for use against NATO forces. It takes effect within minutes, blocking “messages” from the nerves to the muscles, causing convulsions that can paralyze, halt breathing and, in most cases, death.
It can come in liquid form, but is also thought to exist as a solid which could be dispersed as an ultra-fine powder. British investigators believe the Skripals may have ingested it through their skin from Novichok smeared on a door handle. The poison is long-lasting and does not evaporate or deteriorate swiftly.
Skripal had been a double agent for MI6, the British foreign intelligence service. He had been discovered by Russia and jailed but was freed in an exchange for Russian spies captured by western intelligence agencies.
After the swap he had been living for years in the UK under his own name in the quiet and picturesque British city of Salisbury, famous for its cathedral. It was there that he and his daughter, visiting from Russia, were found unconscious and close to death in a park. British authorities say Skripal was targeted as revenge for his betrayal and that Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin, most likely ordered the assassination himself.
Doctors were mystified as to the cause but, assisted by tests at Britain’s biological warfare laboratories in Porton Down, they concluded that the two patients were victims of the horrific Novichok nerve agent. After weeks of intensive care the doctors managed to save the lives of the two Russians although both will have permanent after-effects.
The international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed the UK’s analysis of the type of nerve agent used in the Skripal poisoning. The organization said the substance was “of high purity, persistent and resistant to weather conditions”. Its manufacture requires such sophisticated and expensive techniques that only a state actor could muster such resources. And Russia is the known, sole manufacturer of the nerve agent.
Now former UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said: “There can be no doubt what was used.” He added: “There remains no alternative explanation about who was responsible – only Russia has the means, motive and record.”
Moscow denied any involvement in the attempt on the Skripals’ lives but the Kremlin’s mendacious replies infuriated the British government and London and other western allies kicked out scores of Russian diplomats in the largest such expulsion since the end of the Cold War.
After the latest poisonings Russia again denied any involvement and said the British authorities might have staged the poisonings to take the luster off Russia’s hosting the World Cup soccer championship.
Moscow’s long poison trail
However, the world has become used to the Kremlin’s routine of indignant lies, elaborate distortions and fantastical counter-allegations repeated whenever Moscow is accused of crimes such as shooting down the Malaysian civilian airliner over Ukraine.
But the UK isn’t accusing Moscow of deliberately using Novichok again – indeed London is saying it was probably an accident caused by Moscow’s tradition of sloppiness. That sort of bungling has often helped identify the Kremlin as the perpetrator in the past – for instance the trail of irrefutable evidence that showed an anti-air missile from a specific Russian military unit downed the Malaysian airliner in 2014 killing nearly 300 people, including many children.
Home Minister Javid said: “It is now time that the Russian state comes forward and explain exactly what has gone on,” because Britain knows from past experience that Russia has a long, almost obsessive, history of using poison to eliminate awkward folk, and has even occasionally boasted about it.
In Britain there was overwhelming evidence, accepted worldwide except by the usual suspects like Venezuela, Belarus, Cuba and Zimbabwe, that two Kremlin agents used radioactive polonium in 2006 to murder another former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko.
In fact British investigators were able to identify the killers and trace the places they stayed while in London and their seats on airplanes between the UK and Russia because of strong traces of radioactivity left by the polonium they were carrying. Russia refused to extradite the men for trial in the UK and Putin rewarded the lead murderer by making him an MP in the Russian Duma.
In 2004 the pro-Western candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, who polls showed might win the presidential election in a race against Putin’s favored candidate, was poisoned, likely at a dinner.
He probably survived because he vomited after the meal and received weeks of intensive treatment at an Austrian hospital. The poison was identified as a dioxin called 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, made at one of only a few high-tech facilities in the world. One, of which was in Russia.
Yushchenko won the election but was left permanently disfigured on his face and body.
Using poisons to eliminate Ukrainian freedom fighters
The Kremlin has assassinated lots of uppity Ukrainians. One of those was prominent wartime nationalist leader, Stepan Bandera, whose guerrilla forces, UPA (the Ukrainian Insurgent Army) fought the Germans and later Soviet rule.
Bandera, and another prominent Ukrainian political leader, Lev Rebet, were killed, two years apart, by a pistol firing a cyanide mist which simulated heart attacks. The murders were revealed only after the KGB agent responsible defected to the West and confessed he had assassinated the two men. Autopsies on the exhumed bodies proved he was telling the truth that they had been poisoned.
Russian intelligence, from its earliest days when it was known as the Cheka, has been keen about using poisons and developed stealth murder methods from 1921 in “Laboratory Number 12”, also known as “Kamera” – Russian for “the chamber” – close to the Moscow headquarters of the KGB and its successor agency, the FSB, at 2 Lubyanka Street. Putin has ensured it is generously funded.
Former KGB General Oleg Kalugin, who defected to the US and lives in Washington DC, admitted supervising an assassination in 1978 where deadly ricin, provided by the Kamera, killed an anti-Communist Bulgarian journalist, Georgi Markov, who worked for the BBC in London. He was injected by a microscopic pellet of ricin from a mechanism hidden in an umbrella.
Kalugin also told of a deadly Kamera-designed gel applied to objects handled by the target, such as car door handles and telephones – probably the way the Skripals came to ingest Novichok.
Russian banker Ivan Kivelidi, who offended the Kremlin, died in 1995 after using a telephone smeared with poison.
In 2002 the FSB did not bother to deny they had killed Chechen guerilla leader “Khattab” by doping a letter with poison he absorbed through the skin.
After Chechen terrorists seized a Moscow theater in 2002, FSB special-forces pumped an opiate named fentanyl into the theatre that swiftly made terrorists and hostages unconscious. They shot dead 41 terrorists but 129 hostages choked to death when the FSB refused to tell doctors the antidote to their secret chemical weapon.
In 2004 two Russian opposition journalists, Anna Politkovskaya and Andrei Babitsky, were poisoned while trying to reach a terrorist standoff at a school in the provincial town of Beslan. Both recovered consciousness and survived. But Politkovskaya, who wrote a damning book about Putin, was later shot dead, her friends say on government orders.
Recently the European Court of Human Rights strongly criticized Moscow for failing to discover who ordered the journalist’s murder and they ordered the Russian government to pay 20,000 euros compensation to Politkovskaya’s family.
A politician and journalist, Yuriy Shchekochikin, investigating corruption among Putin’s associates died from a poison his family believes was similar to that used on Yushchenko.
A mysterious US death
The publicity swirling around the recent Russian uses of poison have reopened interest into the death of an American diplomat of Ukrainian origin, Konstantin Varvariv, not long after he rebuffed KGB attempts to recruit him.
General Kalugin, said that he sent an agent to try to recruit Varvariv, then the US ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, when he visited Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1977. Kalugin said the KGB tried to blackmail Varvariv by claiming they had evidence he cooperated with German occupation forces in Ukraine during WW2.
Instead Varvariv reported the attempt to American security services causing a diplomatic scandal. Five years later he died, unexpectedly, of a heart attack. His daughter, Victoria, has always suspected that his death may have been a revenge murder by the KGB.
A Ukrainian-American who has experience of intelligence matters, Jaroslaw Martyniuk, knew the Varvariv family well. He also has his suspicions and approached General Kalugin, at a conference in Washington DC, to ask what happened. Martyniuk claims that when asked how Varvariv died, the former high-ranking KGB man told him: “The same way as Litvinenko.
That intriguing response says Martyniuk, has made him determined to urge American authorities to look into Varvariv’s death and exhume his body for tests to check if he didn’t die of natural causes.
A CIA source told this author the Kremlin sometimes uses poisons instead of simpler methods like shooting when it wants the world to know it can murder opponents in a nightmarish and painful way. It just doesn’t expect anyone to dare to finger the Kremlin the way Britain has done over the Skripal assassination attempt and the more recent event involving the British woman’s murder.
In the past, Britain and other western countries have been reluctant to accuse Russia, hoping that by ignoring such outrages, they might foster better relations with Moscow.
It took a decade before London carried out a thorough investigation which concluded the Kremlin was responsible for the 2006 radioactive poisoning of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko.
Now they have learned better and aren’t shying away from blaming Russia.
Russia will continue to lie and will angrily claim there is no absolute proof. And how could there be? Any Russian who has the courage to do so or defects and says Moscow was responsible for the poisoning attempts will be dismissed by the Kremlin as a traitor and liar. Only an admission by Putin could provide “absolute proof.”
But Moscow has been caught out in its lies enough times that the world has learned to treat Kremlin denials skeptically.
After all Moscow lied for days that nothing had happened when it killed thousands in one of the most spectacular and horrific mass poisonings the world has witnessed – the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine in 1986.
Some in the UK have mentioned military aid to Ukraine as a possible sanction to punish Russia for bringing deadly poisons to Britain. That seems an excellent idea. Not only would Ukrainian troops be able to eliminate a bunch of invading Russian soldiers but Moscow wouldn’t be able to complain because – as Putin has said so many times – there aren’t any Russian forces in Ukraine!
By Askold Krushelnycky, in London, for StopFake