Medical specialists in Germany have determined that Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who is being treated in a hospital in Berlin after falling ill on August 20 on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow, was poisoned with a form of the Soviet-developed nerve agent Novichok.
The toxin found in Navalny is from the same group of poisons as the one used in the March 2018 poisoning of former Soviet intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the English city of Salisbury. Both Skripals survived the attack and were released after spending weeks in the hospital.
RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mark Krutov spoke with Soviet and Russian chemist Vil Mirzayanov about the two incidents. Mirzayanov worked from 1965 until 1992 at the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology, which was run by the military and the KGB. He was part of the team that developed the Novichok nerve agent in the early 1970s. When he left the institute in 1992, he was the first person to speak publicly of the Novichok group of toxins.
RFE/RL: The Novichok that was used in Great Britain caused considerable environmental harm. We all remember seeing emergency workers in hazardous-materials gear working at the places where Sergei and Yulia Skripal had been. One resident of Salisbury died after coming into contact with a perfume bottle containing traces of Novichok. There was talk that whole buildings might have to be evacuated and destroyed. Why did nothing like this happen in Aleksei Navalny's case?
Vil Mirzayanov: The key was the method used. Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned by coming into contact with Novichok through the skin…. In Navalny's case, most likely, the Novichok entered his system through the digestive tract. I believe that in this case, a different version of Novichok was used, one with the code name A-261. Instead of a substance from the amidine group, they attached [crystalline] guanidine to the Novichok molecule. This was done by the creator of Novichok, Pyotr Kirpichev. For one thing, this enabled them to increase the toxicity of the agent by about 10 times compared to that of the substance used in Salisbury. Also, it is a solid substance. It can be mixed with sugar or added into a packet with tea. You only need a few milligrams to kill someone.
RFE/RL: Why didn't Navalny die?
Mirzayanov: It is always a question when the target doesn't die. Maybe he was given a nonlethal dose. Maybe the goal was not to kill him but to put him out of commission and leave him disabled.
RFE/RL: The doctors in Germany say the indications are that Navalny is slowly recovering. As we all know, the Skripals survived their poisoning. But you seem to think that the effects for Navalny could be permanent.
Mirzayanov: That is because I have not heard of any cases of complete recovery following poisoning by an organophosphate chemical-warfare agent. The people who came into contact with such substances during the Soviet period never returned to their previous work.
The doctors say that Navalny will recover. But I have my doubts. The [neurotransmitter] acetylcholine is responsible for the transmission of signals in the brain that control many functions -- vision, the muscles, metabolism. As a result of this poisoning, these connections can be irreversibly harmed or destroyed.
RFE/RL: If we are indeed talking about a different form of Novichok, is it one that is less dangerous for bystanders?
Mirzayanov: Yes. If it is a solid substance, it has a virtually harmless level of vaporization. I would even say no vaporization. It could not even pass through a sheet of paper. It would also be harmless for the "operator," as the terrorist is usually called. He can carry it about and place it into someone's tea even with his bare hands. Kirpichev devised the solid form of Novichok and tested it at the Shikhany laboratory. It proved to be 10 times more lethal than the previously developed forms, A-230 and A-232.
I have never seen A-261, but apparently it can be produced in many forms. In this case, most likely it was a powder.
RFE/RL: When Navalny was still in the hospital in Omsk, people were saying that they were not letting him be transferred to Germany in order to allow time for the poison to be processed through the body. Does this make sense, or can Novichok be detected even after a period of weeks?
I never thought things would reach such a shameful point.Vil Mirzayanov
Mirzayanov: Of course, the human body tries to get rid of poison. From this point of view, the actions of the Russian authorities make sense. The longer they held him, the more of the poison would be processed. But we know from the example of the Skripals that once Novichok has entered the body, it does not quickly disappear. It can be detected even after a month.
RFE/RL: How do you think the German doctors were able to detect the Novichok in Navalny?
Mirzayanov: At the hospital in Omsk, they were most likely not able to do the necessary analysis. Most likely, they simply do not have the equipment and the qualified personnel necessary. It is very expensive equipment -- a mass spectrometer alone costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. And the computers must have known versions of Novichok in their databases. I described these versions in my book, which was originally published in 2007. I imagine that, after it was published, all advanced countries synthesized small quantities and submitted them to mass spectrometry.
RFE/RL: The doctors in Omsk said Navalny's analyses were sent to Moscow and that the laboratory there found no evidence of poison. Could it be that Moscow did not have the necessary equipment?
Mirzayanov: Of course, Moscow has such equipment, which is required by its participation in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Within the CWC framework, inspections are carried out and analyses are performed. Of course, it is another matter whether they would want to announce the results of their analyses if they were even carried out. The security services would not allow that.
RFE/RL: There were reports that Germany asked England for assistance. And also Bulgaria, where it is believed that arms dealer Emilian Gebrev was poisoned by Novichok in 2015. What do you make of this?
Mirzayanov: Well, the more information you have, the better. But I doubt that the Bulgarians would be able to help the Germans much in identifying the poison. The Germans and the English have very good equipment. Most likely, with the Bulgarians they were exchanging information on treatments.
RFE/RL: How did you feel personally when you found out that, just two years after the poisoning of the Skripals, Aleksei Navalny had also been poisoned by Novichok?
Mirzayanov: As someone who participated in the creation of Novichok, I always feel as if I have a certain amount of guilt in such cases. It always affects me quite negatively…. I never thought that the things that we developed and spent so much of our time and abilities on would someday become a weapon of terror. We always thought that it was necessary for the defense of the country. But later I understood that it is simply a weapon of mass murder that affects defenseless people. Not combatants, but civilians. Soldiers can always wear protective gear, and nothing would happen to them even if they were exposed to Novichok. But even after I understood this, I never thought things would reach such a shameful point.