Main Image Credit A police officer in Amesbury, where Dawn Sturgess and her partner Charlie Rowley were exposed to the nerve agent Novichok. Courtesy of Mercopress
The death of Dawn Sturgess, one of two British civilians poisoned with Novichok, the same type of nerve agent used in last March’s attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, escalates questions of public health to high-stakes geopolitics. The incident marks the first domestic murder of a British civilian with a chemical weapon, and presents a wake-up call to the British government and its allies to the grave realities of chemical weapons use and unchecked Russian revisionist behaviour.
It is not immediately clear how Dawn Sturgess and her partner Charlie Rowley were exposed to Novichok, but the severity of their indirect poisoning supports key design features of next-generation nerve agents. Though Novichok is chemically similar to sarin, tabun, and VX, these older agents all have relatively shorter shelf lives, even when refrigerated. Despite this, pro-Russian Twitter trolls quickly championed the claim that Novichok could not have persisted on the ground for the four months between this poisoning and the attack on the Skripals in March and that, therefore, the Amesbury incident supposedly resulted from a ‘false flag’ attack. However, this contradicts the objective fact that Novichok compounds were specifically created by the Soviets to be highly lethal, difficult to detect and able to remain stable multiple years. Though many sites were extensively decontaminated after the March incident, the Skripals did not visit the park where the couple were apparently exposed, so it was not flagged for remediation. Little is known about the properties of Novichok agents once they are released, so the ability to detect contamination without knowing where to look is limited. Resolving any possible link between the batches of Novichok used in this incident and the Skripal attack is crucial. Identifying the source of this poisoning and monitoring Rowley’s recovery may provide this clarity, as well as important scientific insight into the Novichok agents.
For investigators, the details of this case are perplexing, including why the Skripal assassin would leave a trail to be picked up on. On the surface, the assertion that the Salisbury site currently under investigation was contaminated while preparing for the Skripal assassination seems brazen and careless. Though trace radiation was detected at sites across London following the Russian assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, the levels present in the environment were harmless to the public. The answer here may be that subsequent contamination was simply of no concern to the perpetrators. Given that a Soviet programme developed the Novichok agents, Moscow must have known that long-term environmental contamination was possible, yet still purposefully selected the Novichok agent. This intrinsic ‘tolerance’ of collateral damage and disregard for public health suggests a particular contempt for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), while also hinting at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s feelings of imperviousness. Before Sturgess’s death, the attempted assassination of the Skripals already violated British sovereignty with apparent impunity and fired a warning shot for those Russians living abroad who may oppose the Kremlin. Because hundreds of personnel have supported the decontamination efforts in Salisbury, these knock-on poisonings make the UK government look particularly impotent, aiding Putin’s broader propaganda offensive intended to portray the West as weak and divided. For four months now, Putin has had every opportunity to provide the UK with whatever records Russia has on Novichok to aid detection and remediation efforts. However, Moscow has so far been uncooperative with the British investigation and does not fear repercussions.
As more residents seek medical advice, this collision of international and local affairs presents a significant political and public health challenge. The Skripal assassination was not a contained affair. The murder of a British citizen on British soil by a foreign actor is unprecedented, and reassurances from Public Health England and MPs may understandably feel flimsy for Wiltshire residents, and are not helping appearances abroad. Accordingly, the government must mount an effective response. Downing Street will have to formally decide whether this incident constitutes the ‘particular gravity and urgency’ provision required for invoking the mutual defence agreements contained in Articles 10 and 12 of the CWC; previous efforts to hold Damascus and Moscow to account using these articles have failed, yet it is not an exaggeration to suggest that the credibility of the CWC hangs precariously.
Fortunately for Whitehall, this week presents a unique trio of diplomatic opportunities for action, beginning with the NATO summit in Brussels. The summit is expected to be tumultuous, but the UK delegation may be able to leverage this Amesbury incident as a poignant reminder of the Russian challenge, which can only flourish if there is Western disunity. The follow-on visit of US President Donald Trump to the UK is Prime Minister Theresa May’s opportunity to make her case, as Trump will then travel to a much-anticipated meeting with Putin in Helsinki.
Long-standing security issues of cost-sharing, trade and responding to broader Russian disinformation campaigns are likely to loom large over the discussions this week. However, in light of the recent tragic events in the UK, the status of chemical and biological security should also feature. The Novichok attack and subsequent poisoning should concern all NATO allies. The UK is not exceptional, and a shrugging response will validate Moscow’s approach. Mutual chemical and biological security efforts must be robust enough to deter, detect and defend against these next-generation threats and hold rogue states to account.
Ultimately, the answer to Salisbury is both technical and diplomatic, and the UK stands as both a victim and a leader in the discussions on this new Russian aggression. If Britain can thread this needle, Putin may yet find that his regime has pushed too far.
Ryan Henrici is a Marshall Scholar at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine working on infectious disease, emerging technologies, and biosecurity.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other organisation.