“Weapon of Terror”: A Novichok Creator Tells How Navalny Case Differs from the Skripal Attack

Krutov: Why didn’t Navalny die?
 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.

Krutov: 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.
 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.

Krutov: If we are indeed talking about a different form of Novichok, is it one that is less dangerous for bystanders?
 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.

Krutov: 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?
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.

Krutov: How do you think the German doctors were able to detect the Novichok in Navalny?
 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.

Krutov: 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?
 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.

Krutov: 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?
 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.

Krutov: 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?
 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.

Mark Krutov is a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Russian Service.This article is reprinted with permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).