If Sergei and Yulia Skripal survive being poisoned by Novichok nerve agent, they may be left suffering illnesses that ruin their lives – which may be the point of the attack, security experts have warned.
The case of a Russian military scientist accidentally exposed to Novichok appears to show that even surviving the effects of the supertoxic nerve agent is horrific.
Andrei Zheleznyakov was said to have been injected with an antidote almost immediately, but a friend said he still went from being a jovial, creative man to suffering “chronic weakness, toxic hepatitis, epilepsy, severe depression and an inability to concentrate”, before dying five years later.
And The Independent has been told that the Salisbury nerve agent attack may have been part of a plan to leave a Mafia-style “calling card” showing anyone, anywhere in the world that if they betrayed or defied Russia, they wouldn’t just get a bullet in the back of the head – they would die horribly.
She said British experts would have been able to detect minute trace elements proving the nerve agent’s country of origin, and would therefore have been able to rule out the possibility it was from stocks developed by other nations for the purposes of devising defences against it.
The experts, she said, would not just have relied on the fact Russia was the country which developed Novichok. “There are ways to detect and be much more sure about where it came from,” said Dr Lewis, who served on the 2004-6 WMD Commission chaired by Dr Hans Blix.
“There are very high resolution analysis techniques that can track down trace elements, certain types of chemicals in the particular region where it has been made.”
“Russia knows there are techniques to pinpoint where something came from,” Dr Lewis added. “Whoever did this would know this was traceable back to Russia. So why use such an obvious thing, leaving such an obvious trace?”
One possible reason, said Dr Lewis, could have been a desire to send a strong message. “This clearly wasn’t just a bullet to the head,” she said. “This was a communication – along with the polonium attack [on Alexander Litvinenko] – that this is going to be a horrible way to die.
“The communication is there to people who have, in their view, betrayed Russia. It’s a very Mafia-type approach, by people who want to frighten.”
Skripal attack aftermath – in pictures
The experience of Andrei Zheleznyakov appears to suggest the effects of Novichok can be horrific even if you survive.
Mr Zheleznyakov is understood to have been a military chemist, testing the “finished product” as it was being developed in secret in Moscow.
According to an account relayed by Vil Mirzayanov to David E Hoffman, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, Zheleznyakov was exposed after a ventilation pipe broke at the secret facility in 1987.
“The pipe somehow broke,” Hoffman wrote, “And the poison leaked into the air. Zheleznyakov quickly sealed the leak, but it was too late. He felt the impact immediately – myosis, the constriction of the pupil of the eye.
“‘I saw rings before my eyes – red, orange,” he later recalled. “Bells were ringing inside my head. I choked. Add to this the feeling of fear – as if something was about to happen at any moment. I sat down and told the guys: I think it has ‘got’ me.
“’They dragged me out of the room and took me to the chief. He looked at me and said, ‘Have a cup of tea, everything will be fine.’ I drank the tea and immediately threw up.
“’They took me to the medical unit,’ he added, ‘where I was injected with an antidote. I felt a little better. The chief told me: ‘Go home and lie down. Come back tomorrow.’
“’They assigned me an escort, and we walked past a few bus stops. We were already passing the church near Ilyich Square, when suddenly I saw the church lighting up and falling apart. I remember nothing else.’”
Hoffman said Zheleznyakov was taken to a hospital where KGB agents made the doctors sign lifelong secrecy agreements, and told medics the military chemist was suffering from food poisoning after eating a dodgy sausage.
Zheleznyakov, it seems, spent 18 days in intensive care but survived. His life, however, appears to have been ruined.
Using information from Mirzayanov, who now lives in the US after revealing the existence of the Novichok programme in 1992, Hoffman wrote: “At the end of the hospitalisation, he [Zheleznyakov] was given a pension and told to remain silent.
“Zheleznyakov suffered after-effects for a long time, including chronic weakness in his arms, toxic hepatitis, epilepsy, severe depression and an inability to concentrate.
“Zheleznyakov had been a jovial man and was known as a talented woodcarver, but the accident left him unable to work or be creative. He died five years after the accident.”
Major General Chip Chapman, the former head of counter terrorism at the Ministry of Defence, agreed it was likely that part of the motivation for using such a devastating weapon was to intimidate potential internal and external opponents of Vladimir Putin’s government.
Mr Chapman said: “The use of any chemical agent is a psychological thing, and this is a psychological message, not necessarily to Britain, but to those who are political opponents or potential traitors to the Russians in any country.
“It sends a message a lot wider than just to the UK audience. It is part of what the Russians are up to at the moment.”
Dr Lewis stressed she could only speculate about motive and the identity of whoever attacked the Skripals.
She couldn’t entirely rule out the possibility that rogue elements in the Russian establishment had acted without the approval of Vladimir Putin’s government, but she said such a freelance operation was unlikely.
State-sponsored action, she said, was the more likely scenario.
“This stuff is very dangerous,” said Dr Lewis. “It would be highly guarded. The idea that somehow it was let out by rogue elements seems a bit of a stretch.”
The Russian government has accused Britain of engaging in hysterical propaganda in suggesting it might have had some link to the Salisbury poisoning.