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Q&A: French Expert Says Novichok Toxin Is 'Clearly A Direct Link To Russia'

Military personnel wearing protective clothing work in areas that are feared to be contaminated with Novichok in Salisbury, England, on March 11.

Novichok, the toxic nerve agent that British authorities believe was used in the near-fatal poisoning of former spy and retired Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, is a powerful substance that is exceedingly difficult to manufacture.

That’s why a growing number of chemical weapons experts say it is highly likely that only a government could have the technology and infrastructure to make it. And given that the Soviet Union, in the 1980s, was the only state known to have produced it, that has led many experts to conclude that Russian intelligence was behind Skripal’s poisoning.

In an interview on March 13 with Current Time TV correspondent Yekaterina Buchneva, Olivier Lepick, a chemical-weapons researcher at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, argues that there is a direct link to Russia in the Skripal attack.

Current Time TV is the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America.

Olivier Lepick
Olivier Lepick

Current Time TV: Who made Novichok and how?

Olivier Lepick:
There is a kind of mystery around these molecules because the Soviet Union never really recognized that this agent existed, but the international community and the fact that some Russian scientists wrote some documents about this is making it clear that the agent was synthesized by the Russian military complex.

This is probably one of the most toxic -- neurotoxic -- agents that was ever produced for military use. But it’s the first time it’s been really used, either on the battlefield or like in this case -- for a murder attempt. So it’s really a big, big shock for all the experts in chemical weapons.

If this is really Novichok, it’s really big news and a huge shock for the community of experts because it’s clearly a direct link to Russia because, I mean, no nonstate entities could synthesize such a toxic product.

We have to be very prudent before accusing Vladimir Putin and Russia.... We have to check the facts. But again, the only explanation I have, in this context, is that Russia is sending the same message that it has been sending in the past toward those who Russia considers to be traitors. And the message is clear: If you betray Mother Russia, then we will search for you and kill you are wherever you are, whoever is protecting you, and with the most cruel and horrible products that we can find.

That’s the only explanation I can find in this case.

Current Time TV: What does this mean for the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Russia is a signatory to?

There is the possibility that Russia is hiding some sort of stuff, even though Russia has signed the treaty banning chemical weapons. But I think it would be something very difficult to hide. The fact that Russia still has the capacity to synthesize or produce chemical weapons may be something we should consider or believe. I would be very surprised.

At the moment, no signs or clues showing that Russia was not respecting the treaty have come to the attention of the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons). Russia did destroy quite a large amount of chemical-weapons stock -- more than 400,000 tons. So it’s now destroyed.

So, if we could trace back the use of Novichok by Russia in the U.K., then, of course, it would probably raise lots of questions, diplomatic questions, and it could affect relations between the U.K. and Russia, and, of course, with the United States. And also within the OPCW.

Some people say that this agent was developed on purpose to get away from the convention, to use products that are not mentioned in the list of chemical agents. So, in a way, this product could be considered not part of the convention. But the use of any toxic military agent is prohibited by the convention. And whatever the nature of the product, using any chemical agent like that which was used some days ago [in Salisbury] would be a clear and evident violation of the treaty.

So whatever the components of Novichok, its use, its intention is clearly a breach and a violation of the treaty.

Current Time TV: Is there any antidote for it?

The cure for Novichok seems to be the same for other neurotoxic agents: atropine, I think it is.

This neurotoxin is very powerful and if someone is exposed to a large amount or [even] a small quantity, they will probably suffer permanent damage and their lives will be very difficult and there will be very serious consequences on the nervous system.

Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.