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Why Use a Novichok? (lrb.co.uk)
57 points by prostoalex 7 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 63 comments





The final paragraph answers the question:

> Why choose a nerve agent over a hail of bullets, as used in the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, probably by Israel, in November? The logic behind using nerve agents in the Skripal and Navalny cases was that the target could be poisoned through contact with their own belongings, a method that allowed the would-be killers to operate at a safe distance. The death would be formally deniable but the result plain enough to send a message. In both cases the plot ran into the classic problem for assassins: the difficulty of actually killing the victim. It’s surprisingly common for people to survive assassination attempts, particularly when single gunshots or explosives are used. The recent record of attempted nerve agent assassinations leads to the suspicion that they, too, are a poor choice of weapon. Contrary to popular belief, they aren’t always fatal, since they aren’t quickly absorbed through the skin (death is quicker if they’re inhaled, or enter through the eyes). They’re expensive to produce and their effects can be treated with atropine. In this respect they aren’t a dramatic improvement over traditional poisons: hydrogen cyanide, pentobarbital, potassium chloride – or fentanyl derivatives of the kind used in the attempted assassination of the former Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in 1997 – do just as good a job. A mundane explanation for their recent use is that the FSB unit in charge of assassinations happens to be the division that oversaw the old Novichok labs. They used what they had.


> ... they aren’t quickly absorbed through the skin (death is quicker if they’re inhaled, or enter through the eyes)

Assassination of Kim Jong-nam used proved and tried liquid method https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassination_of_Kim_Jong-nam


Right, I suppose they sacrificed, or bypassed the "allows the killers to operate at a safe distance" advantage by having someone literally rub it directly into his face in public.

In a sense, but the trial in Indonesia indicated both assassins were duped into thinking it was harmless prank. They were more the weapon than the assassin.

a nice history of nerve agents that doesn't really answer the question in the title.

why use a nerve agent that is easily traceable back to russia? same reason you use polonium that can be traced back to the exact reactor, to send a message. If you defect to the west then Russia will come after you.


They do at the end

1. it allows the assassins do get away since there is a delay compared to a gun 2. it's formally deniable 3. it's informally obvious who did it 4. the people in charge of doing the killings are also in charge of the development of it, so it might have been easy for them to get access


Same reason mafia bosses did barrel murders [1] or a mafia state would defenestrate inconvenient journalists [2].

To make it obvious who did it while still maintaining a thin facade of deniability.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrel_murder

[2] https://www.npr.org/2018/04/21/604497554/why-do-russian-jour...


I had no idea there was a word for throwing someone out of a window! Thanks for teaching me defenestrate. Now I need to find a sentence I can slip that into

What a rabbit hole. I had no idea that one of the largest mass lynchings in the USA was because the mafia assassinated a police chief:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/March_14,_1891_New_Orleans_lyn...


Did you read till the end? It's not at all clear that it was a mafia hit. The whole thing was clearly stoked by a huge anti-immigration feeling.

As you say, quite the rabbit hole...


The thing though is that it's not super easily traced back to Russia. Other countries have for sure synthesized it, sometimes even in public literature.

It doesn't fill that same niche as Po-210 where it can be traced back to the origin so clearly.


None of those countries had a bone to pick with the target though. Russia had a very obvious motive.

What came out of it was Germany cancelling their gas pipeline to Russia. Almost killing the Skripals is a fair trade to some to give cover for that.

I'm not saying that happened, but there's tons of motives you can find for those other actors.


The pipeline is not canceled yet, but US sanctions make completing it a challenge

So the US is the one that stands to gain the most from this assassination attempt, then.

How ironic.


>"If you defect to the west then Russia will come after you."

I suggest being more realistic. They do not kill just for being defectors. Majority of those do just fine. Many also visit back without much problems. But they sure kill those they want for whatever reasons.


Most Russia talk assumes that we're talking about the Soviet Union.

I really doubt it. Got any link to back it up? And if correct then it is simply irrelevant as that country's been gone since some 30 years back.

It's irrelevant to reality, but not to anti-Russia theorists. Everything becomes a cold-war spy fantasy. The number of times the KGB is mentioned is insane.

Why would it be necessary to send a message that it was you who poisoned your most public critic? It seems unlikely that anyone would point the finger anywhere other than the FSB. While I personally do believe the Russian government is responsible, the timing of the poisoning, being so close to the completion of the Nord Stream II pipeline to Germany, and the connections between Bellingcat and western intelligence[1], should give one pause when looking into this specific case.

[1]: https://thegrayzone.com/2021/02/20/reuters-bbc-uk-foreign-of...


Seems like a really easy way for other countries to hide attribution for their attacks by using something that everything will believe is just Russia "sending a message."

That's a good point. It opens up a possibility for Russia's opponents to use any of these substances to assassinate someone with everyone believing it was the Russians. The Russians would deny it but nobody would believe them. Then obviously if that plan would leak, there is a risk of the previous attempts to now be pinned on this other party.

This is more or less my assessment. It's important to keep in mind that global geopolitics is a subtle game, especially when intelligence operations are concerned; sometimes things are exactly how they appear, but often they're very different from how they are initially reported. It often takes decades to find out what really happened. I don't think there's enough solid information to draw any conclusions about this specific situation, but I do think if Putin intended to get rid of Navalny permanently, he couldn't have picked a worse time to involve Germany in a high profile poisoning case when a pipeline (to Germany) crucial to the Russian economy was due to be opened.

>Well... did it affect anything with the pipeline?

Yes. The US has been threatening sanctions on Russian businesses to stop the pipeline since 2019. The US finally issued the sanctions on ships involved in the construction, using the poisoning explicitly as a justification.[1]

A great deal of pressure was placed on Germany by the US to cancel it completely due to the poisoning, despite the several billion euros of investment already made by the country. The German government did not give in to the pressure.[2]

[1] https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2021/1/19/russias-gazprom-...

[2] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-politics-laschet-...

Edit: The US did not explicitly sanction entities involved in the construction of the pipeline because of Navalny, I got that mixed up with a European parliament push to do so. [3]

[3] https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20210119IP...


Well... did it affect anything with the pipeline?

I've seen a couple of other explanations that I find slightly more convincing:

** They weren't trying to send a message and were relying upon the natural tendency of novichok poisoning to look like natural heart failure. Allegedly there were some other offed Russian oligarchs in London that were chalked up to that that were quietly revisited by the UK.

** It was a group within the GRU acting independently, as evidenced by:

* Russia almost begging the UK to be clued into the investigation at the beginning.

* The history of Soviet agencies acting independently.

* The chaos in 1991 leading to lots of "disappeared" military equipment (I'm almost certain some novichok got "lost").

* The fact that Skripal was probably deeply hated within the GRU who would be more revenge oriented (in which case assassination makes sense) while Putin would be more focused on geopolitical advantage (in which case it doesn't). I can well imagine the fury the GRU had at seeing Putin allowing him to retire to a nice cottage after his treachery.

The timing of the assassination just before Putin's election almost looks like it might be about sending him a message.


The two culprits were GRU officers according to this investigation

https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2018/10/09/ful...


I see a lot of analysis from western viewpoint (which is to be expected on dominantly US web), which is really out of touch with the viewpoint of those in power in current Russia. Its natural for humans to try to understand the world and actions of others as if they were done by oneself, but its an incorrect approach. American can hardly fully comprehend Russian mentality (or ie Chinese and complex decision-making processes).

This is the soviet way and business-as-usual, and they are still ruled by people who got these ways drilled in the brain in the height of the cold war while working for KGB. What else can you expect from such people. Bear in mind, very, very smart people, mostly highly functioning sociopaths like in many other top positions.

They don't care much about western condemnation or sanctions, those don't touch those who hold power (even specifically targeted ones). In contrary - it helps foster the us-vs-they mentality in state controlled media. There is a lot of macho behavior, and even president has to/wants to show some of it since its expected.

People tend to think how much has world moved since end of cold war. Well for Russia and its powergames, very little. Try to look at these things from perspective of cold war optics, and events like Ukraine, Georgia, poisonings etc. do look as usual tug of war of the past.


I agree with this, and do believe the Russian government is responsible for the poisoning. However, I think the tendency to swallow what the US media/intelligence apparatus offers up as truth unquestioningly is an equally harmful and myopic perspective. The actions of the US State Dept with regard to Russia over the past 5 months should increase skepticism of anti-Russian narratives (and the same goes for anti-Chinese narratives). Even if those narratives are true, it's worth taking a moment to consider what the aim of each of the parties involved is.

I don’t find thegrayzone convincing at all.

Do you think the leaked documents themselves are suspect, despite the UK Foreign Office itself confirming the hack[1]?

[1] https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/exclusive-uk-government-p...


Nope.

> Why would it be necessary to send a message that it was you who poisoned your most public critic?

Because it acts as a deterrent to others interested in following in their footsteps.

“I can kill you at any time with no repercussions and I’ll deny it with a smile on my face because I can.”

Putin is busy trying to imprison anyone associated with or protesting for the release of Navalny. That is as telling as anything. It wasn’t the west.


Is it really trackable though? AFAIK the argument is "Only Russia has the sophistication to create such a poison that we can't tell what exactly is, therefore it must be Russia".

In hindsight, it seems like really good way operating. Russia has plausible deniability as it's not factually proven that it is them but everyone thinks that it is, therefore they earn notoriety points that can make other think twice before doing something that Putin might not like.

Russia also gets mythical literature regarding its capabilities, which means that you can fear them as much as you like. It's intellectually fascinating that KGB and now Russa developed that almost magical substance.

Odourless, colourless substances that are harmless and undetectable create extremely potent poison when come together. This creates an opportunity for drama that would give the chills in any spycraft thriller movie. Just imagine knowing that the target was tagged with one of the substances and will die once comes in contact with the other one. A substance that will do nothing to no one else but the tagged person, it creates such a tension. You can imagine the paranoia if this is an actual possibility for you.


> "Only Russia has the sophistication to create such a poison that we can't tell what exactly is, therefore it must be Russia"

If somebody dropped a nuke on North Korea in 50s it would be pretty obvious who did it, wouldn't it?

There was only a few countries that had nukes and only 1 of them had the incentive.

It's very much like that with Novichok.


It's not like that with Novichok. Iran has published just regular scientific journal articles confirming that they've synthesized Novichok, and it's widely believed that most of the west has synthesized it too.

And in 50s USSR and USA had nukes. And some thought Israel had them as well. But only USA had a reason to bomb North Korea.

How is it different?


The first implication in your argument is that it's a constrained supply like nukes in the 50s. However most geopolitically relevant countries have the ability to synthesize the novichoks, with some outright publishing public literature on the topic. Iran's publications on how it breaks down over time and what that means for identification via spectrometry are actually really interesting if you're into chemistry.

The second implication is that only Russia would have anything to gain from it, when the geopolitical machinations have worked out against Russia's favor. The sanctions put an extremely important pipeline for them on the back burner at best (probably canceled), and the Skripals had just about run out of usefulness to the west so it's not like the west lost anything really for that to happen.


Someone can argue that only the USA used nukes on the civilians and not once but twice, therefore it must be them again because who else would do such a cruel thing? False flag operation operation, they can argue.

As long as you don't have a proof, it's words in the winds really.


Isn't that Ajuc's point? In the 50s only Russia and the US had nukes; North Korea was a client state of Russia and China, and had just recently been in war with the US. If a nuke went off in NK in the 50s, everyone would assume, quite reasonably, that the US had done it.

Yes it was.

that's why it is perfect. It's ambiguous enough that could be misread as false flag operation, but it sends message to other targets that they are not safe.

This is a general strategy by Putin and his allies in the Kremlin. Google Gerasimov doctrine. It's very literally trolling.

The last time this was so much as mentioned in a comment on HN was 2 years ago (last story was 4). Seems like it isn't widely discussed but it has been ongoing for decades (Gerasimov's doctrine is from a Jan 2013 speech but it is Soviet and KGB tactics through and through).

It could be because the person who initially posted about it has also said that he made it up from stuff taken out of context: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/05/im-sorry-for-creating-t...

No, he said he made up the term, based on that speech, but that speech was describing an old strategy that the Russians understood Eastern European/Middle Eastern uprisings to be a result of. It's basically guerilla warfare + a psychological component. Everything Gerasimov was quoted as saying in that link you provided is what has taken place in Ukraine and elsewhere.

The academic community has a growing literature on this if you'll check google scholar. There's virtually no doubt it is a real phenomenon even if the term has to be used with nuance (as that article says).

He's saying that the behavior that "Gerasimov's doctrine" describes is not an actual doctrine. but it exists.


> easily traceable back to russia

Maybe "associated with Russia in popular media" - which is a bit of a tautology - But the structures of these are public, they're simple chemistry, and even if it's an "undocumented" one you really have to work to make organophosphates that aren't deadly at low concentrations. Basically any country with a minimal chemical industry could synthesize it - Even a contract manufacturer told it's a "deadly research pesticide which you shouldn't touch"


But other countries will penalize them for it if they find out, e.g. trade bans, suspending foreign bank accounts etc.

I don't think I've ever seen a lrb link that answers the question on the title. I stopped reading them.

Yes, it is state terrorism.

Do you feel the same way about the explosion at Natanz?

That seems more like state industrial sabotage.

Novichok is equivalent of public execution, to deter individuals from defying authority of the state, it's a terror tactic.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_execution


As always when the LRB comes up on HN ...

Please subscribe in some capacity to the LRB - they are, perhaps, the best print periodical on the planet right now (perhaps neck and neck with The New Yorker) and have great coverage across a broad range of international issues.


>It is still unclear why the German military never used them in battle

Hitler served in WW1 and saw what chlorine does in the trenches. That's why he never used chemical weapons on battlefield.


That and the fact the Germans had very little in terms of protection against chemical weapons, and if they started with them, everyone else would respond in kind.

Page requires JavaScript in order to view it entirely. Here's the Outline of it:

https://www.outline.com/Re7Lvx


Oops, how ironic. Just learning now that Outline needs JS in order to work too. Ignore my link

[flagged]


Oh, and he's now imprisoned for being poisoned by western countries now, or how do you explain the fact that he's imprisoned without proper reasons?

He's imprisoned for violating state law. Why else?

Same as Julian Assange.


My theory is that the Russian ruling class are quite literally mad dogs who don't even care about their own country and only about their own wealth. See people like Khadaffi and Idi Amin.

Gaddafi wasn't some saint but saying he had the same motives as Idi Amin is somewhat ignorant of history.

Gaddafi was mostly driven by trying to strength African and Arab unity to better stand up to western countries. He attempted to create a unified Arab state by merging Libya, Egypt and Syria. After that failed he set his sights on trying to create a more unified Africa. I can't find anything that Gaddafi was in it for personal power like Amin was.


I do think that's true for a lot of Russian oligarchs, but I'm not sure you can paint with such a wide brush on Putin himself. Not out of any altruism, but because he sees Russia itself as part of his wealth and wants it to be looked after well in that context.



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