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How A Russian Nerve Agent Got To The U.K.


Novichok is the name of a lethal nerve agent that's just about as Russian as vodka. And it's what British officials say was used in an attempt to kill a former Russian agent and his daughter in Great Britain. Dr. Richard Guthrie is an independent security consultant, an expert on chemical weapons. He joins us from London. Dr. Guthrie, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: Help us understand - what is Novichok? I gather the word is Russian for newcomer.

GUTHRIE: Yes, the Nivochoks were a class, a family of compounds that the Soviets and then the Russians were working on. They're a derivation or a variation of what one might call the traditional nerve agents based on organic phosphorus compounds. But there is a lot that is not known because the Soviets and the Russians kept them quite secret.

SIMON: Mr. Guthrie, why would anyone use a nerve agent to kill two people when bullets or blow darts might have done the job just as easily?

GUTHRIE: Well, I think that's a political question rather than a technical question. I mean, I think just look back at the Alexander Litvinenko case. There would have been many ways of assassinating Litvinenko without making it so high profile. And I think it's about an expression of power. It's about trying to show other people, to create fear in other people that they're not safe, that if you're a traitor, you are never going to be safe. It's a very brutal expression of power. This isn't a subtle, covert assassination.

SIMON: Yeah. And would that confirm - be part of a pattern that confirms that Russia would be the source and not some rogue group or a criminal gang or one of the former Soviet republics?

GUTHRIE: Oh, I think that's a rather compelling set of circumstances - that yes, it makes it - it strengthens the evidence that it was Russian authorities that were doing it. There is a potential scenario, of course, that because everybody would assume it was Russia doing it, that if somebody else was being a troublemaker trying to make Russia look bad, this is the sort of activity they could do. And everybody would then jump to the conclusion it was Russia. But the sort of material that was used here is not a material somebody can whip up in the kitchen. This takes quite a sophisticated laboratory expertise and levels of equipment. So while it's not impossible for others to do it, there aren't that many labs around the world that could. And I'm sure investigators are eliminating those possibilities as part of good practice.

SIMON: Mr. Guthrie, recognizing that a lot of good people spent years trying to put the treaty to prohibit chemical weapons into place, is it useless?

GUTHRIE: Well, no act of law is ever going to be perfect. So we've had something close towards 100,000 tons of chemical weapons have been destroyed under the Chemical Weapons Convention. And it's about 96 percent of all of the declared chemical weapons. Now, that's a tremendous success. If you'd have spoken to me in 1990 with all of those tens of thousands of tons of chemical weapons in place with big countries having doctrines about how to use these to spread them across the battlefield and said, you know, in less than 30 years, we'd have got rid of 96 percent of them, I'd be going, wow, that's brilliant. So it has weaknesses.

We saw the assassination of Kim Jong Nam in Kuala Lumpur last year. We've seen the ongoing use of sarin and chlorine in Syria. We've seen the attempted murder of the Skripals. So clearly, the taboo that there had been against the use of poisons of war - as weapons of war has weakened. And we have to ensure - we have to work very hard to make sure that taboo doesn't weaken even further so that we enter a new era where chemical weapons become normal. I think we can still maintain that taboo. But it's going to take a robust activity and people to stand up and say these things are wrong.

SIMON: Chemical weapons expert Dr. Richard Guthrie. Thanks so much.

GUTHRIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.