COMMENT: Nerve Agent Novichok - Who Didn’t Ask The Vital Question?

Forces News' defence analyst shares his views on what the latest nerve agent attack could mean in Wiltshire.

Cover: members of the Falcon Squadron, Royal Tank Regiment, in Salisbury for the first nerve agent attack in March 2018 (Picture: MoD).

By Christopher Lee, Defence Analyst.

The nerve agent poisoning of two people in Wiltshire could lead President Trump to back Russian President Putin’s original denial that a previous poisoning in the UK was nothing to do with Russia.

That could discredit MI6 and the Prime Minister Theresa May, who claimed the Russians were behind an attack in Salisbury last March.

Two people, believed to be Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley are in a Wiltshire hospital poisoned by the Russian originated nerve agent Novichok.

On Wednesday, the Met Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu announced the chemical substance is the same that poisoned former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

After the Skripal case was cleaned up and the area in Salisbury cleared, the question remained: was there any more Novichok?  

Some of the investigation team were never satisfied with the official view that there was no longer any danger from undiscovered nerve agent.

But there is a Russian version of what had happened twice in Wiltshire this spring and summer: the Novichok did not come from Russia, but from a source in the UK's defence research laboratory at Porton Down.

Police activity outside a block of flats on Muggleton Road in Amesbury, Wiltshire, PA Images
Police cordoned off a number of areas in Amesbury on Wednesday (Picture: PA).

One accusation was that it was an act of 'revenge' after Mr Skripal turned his back on Russia and switched to the British side - although that was never proven.

Theories on why the latest pair have been contaminated are not likely to bring much detail until more about their backgrounds and local movements emerge.

But the Police say there is nothing to suggest they were targeted. 

Another theory could be they touched Novichok left locally from the Skripal hit - although the long life of that chemical is assumed to have passed its kill by date.

The investigation into how Novichok got onto the streets of Salisbury last March included security and personal vulnerabilities at Porton Down.

If the source is not cleared quickly, that investigation could be reviewed.

If there is no quick and sound explanation, Mrs May, who was extremely quick in March to accuse Russia of being the source and the attacker, will have to answer international suspicion that the UK government and its senior intelligence agency got it wrong.

This will then come up at the 11-12 NATO meeting without any credible response from the British government.  

President Trump is to meet President Putin in Helsinki on 16 July. Again, if there are still doubts on source and attacker, Mr Putin will not be slow to condemn Mrs May.

President Trump will condemn everyone, special relationships will wither and the world, in general, will trust no one.

The Skripal case has always had three weaknesses, with questions still remaining: why were the Skripals attacked, why did it happen in March and why was a nerve agent used?

In other words, it was never going to go away. As of this morning, it certainly has not.

:: Hear more from our Defence Analyst Christopher Lee on Sitrep, the only radio programme devoted to discussing matters of defence and security, every Thursday at 1830(BST) on Forces Radio (BFBS).