April 05, 2018
MI6 claims to have identified source of Novichok production
There has been an overnight development in the Skripal affair, which is fast turning into a deteriorating cold-war-style standoff between Russia and the West. As the Times reports this morning, UK security services have pinpointed the source with a high degree of probability to a covert Russian laboratory that would have manufactured the nerve agent. The location, which is not revealed in the article, was identified by a combination of classic intelligence work and scientific methods. The source of the article says they are not 100% certain, but they have a high degree of confidence. They also said that Russians had conducted tests on whether Novichoks could be used for assassinations.
This late development followed a previous statement by Gary Aitkenhead, the head of the Porton Down defence laboratory in Wiltshire, who said yesterday he was not able to verify that the nerve agent had come from Russia. Earlier Boris Johnson had predicted that Porton Down would clear up the source.
As the source in the Times story is hidden, we cannot be entirely certain of the story's credibility, especially given the timing. The news is supported by a FAZ story quoting a German chemical weapons expert, who gives some details of how Porton Down would proceed in identifying the source of the material. They would be looking at the chemical signatures of the original materials of the binary compound. They would be looking at pollutants and impurities, which may allow the scientists to draw conclusions about catalysts used in the production, in turn narrowing down the number of factors potentially used in the production. They would also be looking at special carrier materials to accelerate the absorption of the poison through the skin. But in all cases, according to the German expert, the information needs to be corroborated by additional intelligence work.
This is what seems to have occurred in this case - Porton Down narrowed down the possibilities while the intelligence agencies provided additional information that helped pinpoint the most probable production location.
Russia’s request for a joint investigation into the poisoning was defeated by a vote of 15-6 at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Hague. It was interesting to note that both China and Iran supported Russia, according to the Times. Russia has also demanded a UN security council meeting be convened today.
The Times’ front page this morning still carried a different story - that Theresa May was struggling to keep the anti-Russian coalition together. As we reported there is no unity on this issue in Germany, despite the support for the UK's position by both Angela Merkel and the new SPD leadership. But Italian politics is likely to take a decidedly pro-Russian turn. To maintain a reasonable degree of unity will remain one of the biggest tests of EU diplomacy right now.