Salisbury Under Siege: The Novichok Nerve Agent Attack Uncovered
Chemical warfare: it’s a horror just barely within the grasp of human comprehension. Indeed, while any form of armed conflict wreaks havoc upon the human psyche, chemical and biological based threats hold a particularly frightening place in our minds.
It was a shocking development, then, when the city of Salisbury, England, became the unlikely backdrop for an international incident involving the nerve agent, novichok.
The targets of the attack? Ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, allegedly slain at the hands of Russian agents.
Not only did this audacious act inflame international relations (further), it also turned the spotlight on the silent and sinister world of chemical warfare. A world that–despite global conventions and widespread condemnation–still looms as a shadowy threat in our increasingly uncertain times.
With this in mind, let’s review the facts of this case, placing in its proper context: the intricate and treacherous landscape of international espionage, where the specter of Cold War hostilities lingers, and the safety of civilians can be compromised in the blink of an eye by weapons as insidious as they are deadly.
Table of Contents
The History of Nerve Agents
Novichok’s Side Effects
Previous Assassination Attempts
The Novichok Attack in Salisbury
Your Anti-Nerve Agent Loadout
The History of Nerve Agents
US troops in Panama participate in a chemical warfare training exercise during World War II. (Image courtesy of Gregory A. Wilson via NPR)
As previously stated, nerve agents are a particularly daunting threat to human safety.
It comes as little surprise, then, that shortly after World War I a series of laws and protocols were formed to prevent the use of chemical weapons, and encourage the dismantling/deactivation of such weapons.
Casting our minds back to the 1910s, WWI’s trenches saw the world’s first real exposure to nerve agents and chemical warfare. As such, soldier’s harrowing accounts of the experience reference floating clouds of death hanging above cratered fields–yellow, green, and white fog crawling low to the ground and cascading into their trenches while they slept.
Robert Graves, a victim of gas attacks during WW1 recounted the lingering horror that followed him after the war: “Since 1916, the fear of gas obsessed me: any unusual smell, even the sudden strong scent of flowers in a garden, was enough to send me trembling.”
For a time, this kind of barbaric and archaic practice appeared to have faded. Yet while various wars saw chemical weapons return in short form, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the fear of nerve agents crept onto the world stage again.
Perhaps most notably, Saddam Hussein utilized various nerve agents against his own people during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)–terrorizing Kurds and Iraqis alike with sarin, tabun, and VX agents. Later, when the United States answered the world’s cry for help during Desert Storm, troops were quickly prepared against his chemical weapons with a variety of vaccinations and protection against chemical and biological agents.
While some disputed these claims during the “weapons of mass destruction” controversy in the beginning of the Iraq War, those who had boots on the ground during the time knew the truth of his misdeeds.
Notably, for many Americans, this was the wake up call we needed to make preparations for contending with CBRN threats–even among everyday citizens.
A 1992 letter between the Army and US subcommittee on readiness echoes this sentiment. It reads, “The ability of US forces to protect themselves against the use of chemical weapons has become increasingly critical due to the proliferation of chemical weapons worldwide… Soldiers must be provided with effective equipment to protect against chemical attack.”
Thus, it was time to wake up and gear up. The threat of chemical and nerve agents wasn’t gone. If anything, it was back stronger than ever.
When one thinks of recent events involving chemical warfare and nerve agents, they won’t have to look much further than the Syrian civil war. Curiously, yet unsurprisingly, Russia appears in the fold somewhere too.
Most recently, a nerve agent called “novichok”–meaning “newcomer” in Russian–has found itself at the center of current events. Considering the fact that the Kremlin named this new nerve agent class “newcomer” and then immediately denied that they were creating new nerve agents is… frustrating, but unsurprising coming from a country that is constantly lying, murdering, and spreading disinformation.
Really, we should thank them for constantly telling on themselves. It’s good, after all, to know your enemy. They really can’t even keep up with their own lies.
Here, a quote from the immortal Colonel Goodhead springs to mind: “If we don't know what we are doing, the enemy certainly can't anticipate our future actions.” (It sounds like a brilliant strategy–at least, until it just isn’t.)
Wartime humiliation at the hands of a country less than half of its size aside, Russia has continued to be an active threat to the rest of the globe. With that said, this has manifested itself in unexpected ways.
While the Kremlin isn’t a stranger to subterfuge and espionage, they’ve been accused of deploying their nerve agents in an unconventional and unconscionable way: directly against civilians and civilian targets.
One noteworthy example of this is the Salisbury novichok event, which struck fear into the hearts of Britons. Not only did it result in the deaths of its targets, but it also caused collateral damage to citizens completely uninvolved with the intended victims.
Now, it’s one thing to use nerve agents like novichok in a warzone. It’s cowardly, and it’s reprehensible–but it’s war. Deploying something as powerful as novichok into a predominately civilian area is pure evil, however.
Note that novichok is not a “poison,” as it’s been commonly referred to in news reports. More accurately, novichok is an incredibly powerful nerve agent. But what is a nerve agent? And is this the game we’re playing now? One where Russia is down to unleash weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations?
It’s actually not a question; this is our very real, very current reality.
Novichok’s Side Effects
Kim Jong Nam gesturing towards his face as he talks to security officials after being attacked in the Kuala Lumpur airport. (Image courtesy of AP via Financial Times)
Nerve agents are the nastiest tool in a military’s forbidden arsenal. Synthetic chemical agents, these compounds are often employed in assassination attempts, societal destabilization (like the Kurds), or other means of unconventional (and illegal) warfare.
Here, it must be stressed that these weapons of mass destruction are among some of the most horrific and brutal available. This is because they produce undue suffering and agony–leaving mental scars upon their victims.
Targeting the central nervous system, nerve agents disrupt its physiological processes. Oftentimes, they are deployed in a colorless gas form, with many giving off a fruity or perfume-like odor. Inhaling or coming into physical contact with their liquid form is the most common vector of application.
Notably, these weapons cause increased uncontrollable drooling, agonizing seizures, burning sensation in the affected areas (which radiates to the groin and extremities), and intense cramping–to name only a few.
Ultimately, the victim finds themselves unable to breathe as respiratory paralysis sets in. That means you will either die suffocating as your lungs fail–defecating and feeling like you’re sweating through your eyeballs–or, if the nerve agent is concentrated, you die immediately.
Of course, depending on your situation, surviving a nerve agent attack may be worse than death, as those who survive but are not treated quickly enough are subjected to a grueling recovery. During this time, symptoms range from extreme PTSD, hallucinations, memory fragmentation, and mind-shattering headaches.
When speaking about novichok specifically (referred to as cholinergic toxicity), we observe many related symptoms and effects. It’s also important to bear in mind that Novichok is a class of nerve agents, not a single substance. As such, symptoms are similar to each other, but can vary slightly.
One reason for this is the magnitude of misery that novichok unleashes. It is, after all, five to eight times stronger than one of the most infamous nerve agents ever created, “VX.”
VX, notably, was used in the assassination of Kim Jong-Un’s brother in Malaysia in 2017. While VX killed this man expeditiously, novichok is even more powerful when employed in the same fashion. Of course, we have yet to see anyone with a novichok-soaked rag shoved directly into their mouth, like what happened in Malaysia. And, in light of this, one can only imagine the effect it would have.
Novichok, after all, stimulates the production of any and all secretions in the body. And while our orifices are blocked with secretion, this agent goes to work reducing our autonomic nervous functions like blood pressure, breathing, and bowel function.
So what does it look like when administered in subtle amounts, as to avoid detection? Well, unfortunately, we know all too well–again, thanks to Russia doing what Russia does best: trying to silence its critics.
Previous Assassination Attempts
Anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny. (Image courtesy of EPA via BBC)
In May 2021, a conference organized by Mikhail Khodorkovsky was held in Berlin, Germany. Notably, Khodorkovsky has been an active critic of Russia since he founded the Open Russia Foundation in 2001.
Yes, the same foundation that was quickly banned from operating inside of Russia. In fact, Russia has a long and storied history of silencing its opponents. So it should come as no surprise that the Kremlin wasn’t exactly hyped about Khodorkovsky broadcasting his message internationally.
In attendance at this conference was Natalia Arno. Natalia Arno, for her part, is the US-based chief of the Free Russia Foundation–an international group supporting civil rights and promoting democracy in Russia. Headquartered in Washington D.C, their goal is to see Russia embrace and uphold human rights without oppression.
Naturally, this meeting of the minds would have tweaked the Kremlin slightly. Accordingly, Natalia reported that after she attended the conference, she returned to her hotel room and found that it appeared to be broken into.
What’s more, she stated that she encountered a “foreign and sharp” smell. Shortly thereafter, she developed acute pain, weakness, and neuropathy. She described the aroma as perfume-like (sound familiar?), and noted that her teeth and tongue began to ache.
Consequently, she returned to the US without delay. There, a blood test confirmed that she had been poisoned with a neurotoxic substance. While the substance was not conclusively identified to be novichok, it did match the symptoms very closely.
Perhaps if this had been a one-off situation, we could “chok” it up to paranoia. Except, it’s not. Elena Kostyuchenko, another activist and Kremlin-critical reporter who had seen four of her colleagues murdered for their reporting, was also poisoned.
Unfortunately, Kostyuchenko found difficulty seeking aid in Berlin, and consequently wasn’t treated for weeks. When she eventually sought aid two months later, a medical test revealed the most likely cause was “poisoning of some form.”
Perhaps one of the most prolific and disturbing cases of Russian “poisoning,” however, was the assault upon Alexei Navalny. A Russian lawyer, activist, and politician, Navalny gained the world’s attention by challenging Vladymir Putin in the 2018 presidential election.
Naturally, Putin responded by doing what any totally sane not-a-dictator would do: he barred Alexei from running for president. Well, that didn’t stop Navalny from doing what he did best–speaking out against this tyrant.
Luckily for Navalny, absolutely nothing happened to him and he went on to live an unbothered life speaking out against Putin and advocating for a better Russia, just like the Free Russia Foundation.
In 2020, Navalny was campaigning in Siberia. While returning to Moscow, Navalny began to fall ill. Can you take a guess at his symptoms? Not only did Navalny begin to feel sick, he was absolutely paralyzed with pain–screaming, moaning, simply beside himself with agony.
After his aircraft made an emergency landing in Omsk, Alexei was rushed to the acute poisoning unit. Once he was stable, he made a quick trip to Berlin, for further treatment.
While receiving care in Berlin, he was thoroughly tested and results were found to be somewhat muddled. Thankfully, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons later discovered that Alexei Navalny had been poisoned by novichok.
The vector with which Navalny was assaulted remains unclear. There is evidence to support that he was exposed from a water bottle in his hotel room. There’s also a claim that a Russian officer admitted to putting Novichok in Alexei’s underwear.
Bruh. Seriously? That is low.
Unsurprisingly, Russia denied the hell out of this claim just like they’re denying the murder of Yevgeny Prigozhin. It’s almost like they have a long and storied history of putting out hits on their opponents, or something.
Now, we’re not one to deny that rich businessmen might not have the purest intentions, but this bullsh*it holds up about as well as the last season of Game of Thrones. Actually, it holds up about as well as a joke about the last season of Game of Thrones in 2023. This is just lazy–about as lazy as Jon's writing.
Seems to us that Khodorkovsky and Navalny were seeing eye to eye on an awful lot. As such, it sounds more like a tyrannical, nerve agent-deploying dictator panicking to jam yet another skeleton into their closet. (That closet is getting awfully full, by the way.)
The Novichok Attack in Salisbury
Ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. (Image courtesy of The Times)
What about if you’re not an active critic of the Kremlin? This all seems very targeted, no? Unfortunately, two words have unfortunately become synonymous with collateral damage: “novichok Salisbury.”
Sergei Skripal was a Russian double agent during the mid-1990s. Working for, and against, the United Kingdom and Russia, he was eventually punished by Russia in 2004. After serving six years of a thirteen-year prison sentence for high treason, however, he was returned to the UK.
Fast forward to 2018–an entire lifetime behind him. The now sixty-six-year old Skripal was enjoying an afternoon meal with his daughter Yulia on a park bench in Salisbury, England.
Sergei began to feel unwell, followed shortly by Yulia. Soon, the pair was discovered on the park bench after citizens alerted emergency services to what they believed was a drug overdose.
They described Yulia as wide-eyed and foaming at the mouth, while Sergei remained comatose. Consequently, Yulia and Sergei were quickly transported to a local hospital, where Sergei would remain hospitalized for ten weeks. Yulia made a quicker recovery at five weeks.
According to officials, Yulia and Sergei were targeted because Russian authorities were unhappy with the release deal that secured Sergei’s release to the UK early. At the time, authorities were unsure of how they came into contact with Novichok–just that they did.
Except, you see, that’s not where the story ends. It’s where it begins. Nick Bailey, a responding officer, became exposed to the novichok too. This occurred when Mr. Bailey responded to the Skripal’s home residence, where he came into contact with novichok wiped on the home’s door handle.
Though he was also treated with the Skripals, he would state later that his exposure to Novichok had effectively derailed his career. Unable to continue with his duties due to the psychological and physical effects, Nick was forced to leave the force.
Yet while a heroic police officer’s career was derailed as a collateral target, there was still more heartache to come.
Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, initially, had nothing to do with any of this incident. Having purchased a flat near Salisbury, the couple were moving in with Dawn’s three children.
The day of the Skripals’ attack, Charlie decided to visit a local thrift shop to purchase some goods for their new home.
Amongst the various goods, he discovered what he thought would be a lovely gift for Dawn: a perfume box. Thus, Charlie, the ever-doting boyfriend, collected a treasure trove of items for Dawn, and excitedly returned home to shower her with his affection.
Upon returning home, he presented Dawn with the box. He noted that it seemed expensive, and was sealed tight with plastic–presumably, a phenomenal find for a cash-strapped lad. With that, Dawn unwrapped the gift, attached the spray nozzle, and sprayed the perfume on her wrists.
There’s few things as satisfying in life as watching someone you love raise their eyebrows in ecstatic joy, knowing you nailed a perfect present. It’s one of the simple, little moments that build a relationship. It’s something we remember, cherish. Any one of us can place ourselves in Charlie’s shoes.
Yet that quintessentially happy moment turned sinister when Charlie stepped away for a moment, and, upon returning, found Dawn unresponsive and foaming at the mouth. Then, Charlie called for a friend to alert emergency services, as he began to succumb to the same symptoms.
Charlie remained hospitalized for three weeks. Dawn, unfortunately, did not survive.
“I didn’t mean to, but I killed my girlfriend. How do you ever get over that? I can’t,” he told the Mirror.
Detectives do not know how the bottle was transferred between the Skripals and the thrift store. While a connection was made between the particular counterfeit Nina Ricci perfume bottle and the Skripals, that’s where the trail seemingly goes cold.
Here, it must be stressed: this could be any one of us. A public servant, or a spouse. As such, the Salisbury Novichok incident highlights the threat Russia–and nerve agents–pose. Alongside this, it clarifies the importance of organizations like the Free Russia Foundation: the ones who are speaking out against corruption and atrocities like this one.
And of course, as savvy survivalists, the incident prompts increased preparedness measures. As ever, we can’t wait for the world to change on its own timeline. We have to draw our own lines in the sand.
Your Anti-Nerve Agent Loadout
Full stop, the first thing you’ll need to prevent inhalation of dangerous nerve agents is the CBRN Gas Mask Filter NBC-77 SOF. With a twenty year shelf, superior compatibility with NATO threaded respirators, and the guarantee of protection against all known CBRN agents, you’ll find no compromise here. Trusted by the most elite operators and civil servants the world over, make sure you’ve got the NBC-77 ready to deploy at a moment's notice.
CBRN gas mask filter NBC-77 SOF
Of course, a powerful filter necessitates an equally effective gas mask.
And when it has to work the first time when you need it now–the MIRA Safety CM-6M Tactical Gas Mask is your tried and true lifeline. Fully compatible with the NBC-77 SOF filter, this duo ensures unmatched protection against even the most toxic nerve agents. With a tested and proven thirty hour resistance to mustard gas, you can be sure this seal won’t fail you when you need it most.
CM-6M tactical gas mask
Note that nerve agents are most commonly deployed as a vapor or liquid. It is prudent, therefore, to keep your hands clean with the HAZ-GLOVES - Butyl Gloves for CBRN Protection. This product ensures your skin is fully protected against a deadly nerve agent attack with 32-mil butyl rubber construction–exceeding the US military standard by 129%. Durable and sturdy, in a variety of sizes, you won’t lose a shred of dexterity when operating in a contaminated biome.
The MIRA Safety HAZ-GLOVES
Remember, too, that liquids and sprays are always looking for any exposed inch of skin to enter your blood. The MIRA Safety HAZ-SUIT gives these weapons no purchase–not today, not this prepper.
So arm yourself with protection to over 125 chemicals, including chemical warfare agents and industrial toxic chemicals. Trusted by the U.S Military, first responders, hospital emergency planners, and major chemical corporations, this HAZ-SUIT has earned its place in any survival bag. Should you ever find yourself facing a deadly threat like the dreaded VX nerve agent, this suit will get you out alive.
Police handout image of Alexander Petrov, right, and Ruslan Boshirov, left, at Salisbury train station on March 3, 2018. (Image courtesy of EPA-EFE/London Metropolitan Police)
Death by nerve agent is a terrifying thought.
There are steps you can take to make it out alive, however. OSHA, for instance, recommends that if you’re ever in the vicinity of a nerve agent deployment, you must, first and foremost, get away quickly. The very next thing the organization recommends is to have appropriate chemical resistance clothing.
Sadly, the threat of chemical warfare isn’t going anywhere. Many people prefer to live as sheep–bury their heads in the sand, as it were. They sleep easy at night, unaware of the threats facing them. By contrast, we survivalists sleep easy at night knowing we have the highest-quality equipment within arms reach at all times.
Because of this, should Russia or another rogue state actor decide to try their luck in our corner of the world, we’ll be far ahead of them. We’re ready at all times. Not about to be caught as bystanders – ready to respond, survive, and counter.