Testing Our Nerve: Espionage, Chemical Weapons and Human Experimentation

By David Peace and Ulf Schmidt

On Sunday 4th March 2018 former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury – home of the military research facility Porton Down. It is believed that both were purposefully exposed to a chemical nerve agent. The case is now being treated as an attempted murder by counter-terrorism police.

What is dangerous about nerve agents? Among some of the most lethal chemical poisons ever produced by man, nerve agents disrupt the mechanisms used by nerves to transfer messages to organs that provide vital functions. The disruption is caused by inhibiting the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, a neurotransmitter. Poisoning by a nerve agent can lead to dramatic convulsions and death by asphyxiation or cardiac arrest due to the loss of the nervous system’s control over vital organ functions.

Around 21 people, including three of the responding police officers, received medical treatment after the suspected attack on Skripal. Three people remained initially hospitalised after the poisoning – Skripal and his daughter, who were both in a critical condition, and British police officer, Sgt. Nick Bailey, who though conscious and talking remained hospitalised. By the time of writing, Bailey and Skripal’s daughter Yulia have both been released from hospital, the latter to an unknown secure location, after their condition had markedly improved. Sergei Skripal’s condition is also said to be improving. Given the type of agent to have been used, Yulia and Sergei’s recovery has been quite unexpected, to say the least.

Police and government officials originally refused to publicly speculate who is behind the attempted murder of Skripal, yet many across social media platforms were quick to raise the similarities between this case and the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko – another former Russian spy who was poisoned in London by means of a cup of tea laced with radioactive polonium-210. What can we say for sure about this event?

Sergei Skripal is a former Russian military intelligence officer for the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) – the foreign military intelligence agency of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. In December 2004, Sergei Skripal was arrested by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor organisation to the KGB. He was tried and convicted of high treason and imprisoned. The case was made public in August 2006.

According to the FSB, in 1995 Skripal had been recruited by British Intelligence agent Pablo Miller, then under the alias Antonio Alvarez de Hidalgo, in Spain. According to Russian prosecutors, Skripal had begun working for the UK’s MI6 shortly after, by passing on state secrets, including the names of Russian intelligence agents active in Britain. After being charged and found guilty of high treason in the form of espionage, Skripal was convicted and sentenced to thirteen years in prison. The story could have ended there. But it didn’t.

On June 27th, 2010, the FBI arrested ten suspected Russian sleeper agents as part of an investigation into the ‘Illegals Program’. Posing as ordinary American citizens, the group of sleeper agents had intended to infiltrate and build a network of contacts with academics, industrialists and policy makers to gain access to sensitive intelligence. All ten of the apprehended agents were flown to Vienna on July 9th, 2010, where they were exchanged for four Russian nationals, three of whom were convicted and imprisoned by Russia on espionage charges. Skripal was among the group of four Russian nationals released as part of the spy exchange, his name being included in the swap on the insistence of the UK government.

On release, Skripal settled in Salisbury in 2011 under asylum protection of the UK government. Eight years later in March 2018 his 33-year old daughter Yulia came to visit her father in Salisbury after having returned to Moscow in 2014. It was during this visit that the two are suspected to have been exposed to a nerve agent, probably in liquid form on the door handle of Sergei Skripal’s house. It appears that soon after, samples taken from the site exposed to a poisonous substance were examined by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) in Porton Down where the substance is believed to have tested positive for a rare nerve agent – Novichok.

Novichok – which literally means ‘Newcomer’ – are ‘fourth generation’ nerve agents which are extremely lethal and fast acting chemical agents developed by the then Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s. The aim of these compounds, which were developed by a branch of the State Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology at Shikhany, near Volgograd, was to be undetectable by standard NATO detection equipment and safer to handle. It is believed that there are approximately one hundred variants of Novichok agents. The development of Novichok agents were part of an offensive chemical weapons programme code-named FOLIANT which was so secret that Russia, despite having signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1993, did not declare them to the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Although western intelligence agencies were aware of their existence, the non-disclosure of Novichok agents was tacitly accepted in return for the ratification and implementation of the CWC by the international community since the 1990s.

This is an unusual and distressing case which raises many problems for police investigators trying to ascertain what happened in Salisbury on that March weekend. A month later, the OPCW Technical Secretariat confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that the substance used against the Skripals in Salisbury was an extremely toxic nerve agent and that the samples collected and examined were of ‘high purity’. The ‘almost complete absence of impurities’, together with other evidence, adds further weight to the suggestion that high level experts and state actors may have been involved in the production, planning and execution of what is an unprecedented nerve agent attack on European soil, at least since the Second World War. On 13th April, the UK national security advisor, Mark Sedwill, informed his NATO counterpart, Jens Stoltenberg, that only Russia had apparently the ‘technical means, operational experience and the motive’ for such an attack. He also informed NATO that Russia had apparently commenced a programme to train special personnel in the delivery of Novichok agents in the 2000s and that this had included the delivery by “application to door handles”, as in the case of the Salisbury attack.

Having happened on the door-step of Porton Down, the case raises a series of issues – how prepared, for example, is the UK in the 21st Century to deal with the use of weaponised chemical agents in acts of crime, terrorism and warfare? The shock to the local community around Salisbury is obviously profound, not only in terms of the ongoing decontamination process in nine sites which is likely to take months, and in relation to the reduction in trade and the value of housing stock in the area, but also in terms of the ‘tainted’ image associated with the city among visiting tourists and observers.

At the same time, the case highlights, more than ever, the importance of the CWC as an internationally agreed framework for the systematic monitoring, verification, and destruction of chemical weapon stockpiles in the world. For most governments, the use of chemical weapons is seen as ‘morally indefensible’ and a ‘repugnant crime’, which neither state nor non-state actors can be permitted to commit without impunity. Historically, it is a subject deemed to be so sensitive that politicians sometimes feel justified to act in the name of ‘human civilization’ beyond the national limits of their political mandate. Yet it also touches upon areas of secrecy that nations guard most closely.

The UK has historically been at the forefront of investigations into the manufacture and use of weaponised chemical agents ever since it was attacked by Germany with choking and blistering agents during the First World War. Yet, it was the discovery of the weaponised-production of the highly toxic nerve agent sarin by Nazi Germany that prompted the upscaled covert research into chemical weapons at Porton Down. Included in this upscaled research was the non-therapeutic experimentation with nerve agents on human subjects.

From 1945-1989 an estimated 3,400 servicemen are believed to have taken part in nerve agent trials. With the upscaled use of human experimentation to meet the demands of this evolving method of warfare came ancillary crises and challenges in regulatory and ethical practice. Several questions arise: Did subjects give voluntary consent? How was consent obtained? Were the risks explained to the subjects? What safeguards were taken? How was research regulated? These questions are directed towards protecting the fundamental rights of human participants in non-therapeutic trials. Yet, were the ethical standards to protect human rights, as outlined in the Nuremberg Code from 1947, able to sufficiently regulate highly secret military research under the covert demands of the Cold War?

As the case of Sergei Skripal all too dreadfully shows, these questions are not confined to the historical archive. When moving into another age of increasing uncertainty, when the borders of political reality are shifting with each day, the philosophical underpinnings of how we envisage human rights in cultures of secrecy and research become as pressing as they were in the past. Chemical weapons are no longer confined to the battlefield and have been used in an unconventional way to engender a new type of terrorism. Yet perhaps even more unsettling seems to be the fact that the growing use of chemical weapons is becoming ‘normalised’ in modern-day conflicts. What remains certain is the UK’s need to understand these weapons, to know how they have been and are manufactured, where they have been manufactured and how to treat those who have been exposed to them. With this comes the demands of scientific research and once more the ancillary crisis of where human rights lie in relation to secret science.


To find out more please see:

Ulf Schmidt, Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)

Ulf Schmidt interview with Clare McDonnell on BBC5Live about the development and nature of chemical weapons in the wake of the suspected use of nerve agent to incapacitate former Russian spy Sergei Skripal. Interview starts at 1:11:00 – https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09tgpt6#play


Ulf Schmidt is a Professor of Modern History and Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine, Ethics and Medical Humanities at the University of Kent. David Peace is a PhD Candidate in the School of History at the University of Kent.

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