Novichok Synthesis Essay

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1. Introduction

The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and their Destruction (Chemical Weapons Convention, CWC) was submitted for signing in Paris on 13 January 1993, after complicated negotiations. The Convention came into effect on 29 April 1997, and up to the present time (31 March 2014), 190 countries have participated in the Convention. It has been signed, but it has not yet been ratified by two countries (Israel, Myanmar); and, four countries have not yet signed the Convention (Angola, Egypt, South Sudan, the Korean People’s Democratic Republic). In accordance with Article I, each contractual country undertakes not to develop, produce, otherwise acquire, accumulate, keep and transfer chemical weapons in any situation. The contractual country is obliged not to use chemical weapons, not to perform any preparation for their military use and to destruct its own chemical weapons and the facilities for their production that are under its jurisdiction and control. It also undertakes the destruction of all the chemical weapons left in the territory of the other contractual country.

A total of about 71,000 tons of chemical weapons have been declared (chemical toxic substances and precursors). The largest stocks were declared by Russia (40,000 tons) and the United States (30,000 tons), the remaining proportion by Albania, India, Iraq, South Korea, Libya and, recently, also, Syria. In accordance with the original intention, the chemical weapons were supposed to be destroyed within ten years after the CWC came into force, i.e., by the end of April, 2007. This has not been the case, and thus, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in Haag adopted an extension of the term for the destruction of all of the declared stocks by a further five years. By 2012, more than 51,000 tons of chemical weapons had been destroyed, which is about 72% of the stocks declared. Thus, the destruction of chemical weapons is still under way. All of the stocks of Albania, India and South Korea have been destroyed. As a yet unresolved question, the ownership of chemical weapons is suspected for countries that have not yet become participants in the CWC. There is also an open question about the destruction of old and abandoned chemical weapons and about chemical weapons sunken in the sea or deposited under the ground.

Thus, it seems that the era of chemical weapons as one of the traditional technologies for weapons of mass destruction has been terminated. Some authors consider chemical weapons to be directly consigned to the scrap heap of history [1]. On the other hand, over the last twenty years, a number of serious arguments have been presented that offer a less optimistic view. The aim of the present work is to attempt to answer several basic questions: Is the existence of chemical weapons associated with a particular historical era? Are the reasons that resulted in adopting the CWC still persisting? What is the currently existing technical level of chemical weapons? Is there a scientific-technical potential for their further development?

2. Brief History of Chemical Weapons

2.1. Prehistory and Pre-Industrial Era

The use of toxic substances as weapons has a long history of several thousands of years. It is associated with traditional methods of hunting, including the use of poisoned weapons (arrows, spears), the poisoning of water (watering holes, fishing) or the fumigation of animals with toxic combustion products. All of these hunting forms using toxic substances, which also appeared in combat and which were later particularly developed for ancient wars, have persisted until present time. The Middle Ages saw the enrichment o military technology with the discovery of gunpowder (including its prototype, “Greek fire”), which made possible not only the development of new weapon systems, but also new methods for the transfer of toxic substances to warfare conditions [2]. This stepwise development continued from the first Chinese primitive chemical grenades, still launched by mechanical artillery, to chemical ammunition of an advanced type, which occurred as soon as at the beginning of the industrial era. For example, at the time of the Crimean War, in addition to a proposal for taking Sevastopol with the help of toxic sulfur dioxide obtained by the combustion of sulfur, there was also a design for artillery shells filled with cacodyl cyanide. In the American Civil War, there were also proposals of using artillery shells filled with chlorine, hydrogen cyanide (a binary system consisting of potassium cyanide and hydrochloric acid), compounds of arsenic or poisonous plant material (for example, Capsicum, Piper, Veratrum) [3].

2.2. Onset of Chemical Weapons in World War I

A decisive break in the history of chemical weapons was encountered in World War I, particularly after the German chlorine attack in Ypres on 22 April 1915. This fact can be explained by a combination of several basic conditions, such as the enormous extent of the war conflict, the high level of science and technology, the necessary capacities and the as yet experienced development of the chemical industry. The immediate stimulus for the mass development and use of chemical weapons was the attempt of field armies to solve the acute lack of conventional ammunition and to react to the reality of static (trench) warfare, which was developed on all of the main fronts. Chemical weapons were expected to break the defense of the enemy, to establish conditions for a conversion to mobile warfare and, thus, to contribute to the final victory. This strategy was definitely not fulfilled, but chemical weapons demonstrated their high efficacy and became an important operational-tactical factor. They were essentially used in any large combat, and their proportion of the total volume of the weapons used was dynamically increased. The main big powers (Germany, France, Britannia, Russia and the United States) produced more than 200,000 tons of chemical warfare agents (CWA), and out of this, the largest amounts were used by all the methods known at that time (gas cylinders, tube artillery, mortars, “gas projectors”, hand grenades and rifle cartridges). So-called rapidly acting lethal substances had a precedence (chlorine, phosgene, diphosgene, chloropicrin, hydrogen cyanide); and, at the last stage, also vesicants (mustard gas). Most land operations were accompanied by the use of harassing agents (tear gases, irritating aerosols). Chemical weapons eliminated about one million soldiers from action, and about 10% of them died. This was also of a considerable economic and logistic importance. In addition, chemical weapons demonstrated high psychological effects, deepened the privations of military troops and enhanced the fighting effects of conventional weapons [4,5,6].

2.3. Continuing Development of Chemical Weapons

After World War I, public opinion definitely refused the use of chemical weapons, seeing them as inhumane, but chemical warfare had already become an integral part of military doctrines. So-called first generation chemical weapons were employed by both parties in the civil war in Russia, by the Spanish and French armies in Morocco and, later, also, by Italian troops in Abyssinia and by the Japanese army in Manchuria. The air force, equipped with chemical bombs and equipment for spraying, able to penetrate deep into the enemy background and to endanger large cities and industrial complexes, became a new element, disrupting the strategic equilibrium. Chemical arsenals were extended by further CWA. The most important group of vesicants still (mustard, lewisite) was supplemented by propylene mustard, O-mustard, sesquimustard, numerous variants of nitrogen mustard and different tactical mixtures. The development of chemical weapons in the interwar period achieved its maximum in the late 1930s. Chemists of the German IG Farben synthesized a series of new organophosphates within the framework of the research and development of pesticides, which are effective inhibitors of acetylcholine esterase (AChE) [7]. Nerve agents, named tabun and sarin, became the basis of chemical weapons of the so-called second generation.

2.4. Chemical Weapons in World War II

In the course of World War II, big powers exerted technical, as well as organizational readiness to use chemical weapons on a mass scale [8]. This is supported by the fact that they stored above 400,000 tons of CWA; out of this, 2/3 were vesicants (mustard, lewisite). However, until 1944, Germany also produced considerable stocks of chemical weapons of the second generation, i.e., more than 12,000 tons of tabun and a smaller amount of sarin. It is thus of interest that the expected total chemical warfare did not occur; only the Japanese army employed chemical weapons to a limited extent (even if with serious consequences) in China. There are several possible explanations. One reason could be the personal negative experiences of Adolf Hitler, who was, at the time of World War I, seriously affected by mustard gas. At the first stage of the successful blitzkrieg, Germany did not need chemical weapons. Later, when they lost the strategic initiative and started seriously considering the use of chemical weapons, the fear of retaliation attacks was prevalent. The Allies repeatedly discouraged Germany (but also Japan) with their chemical arsenal, and they probably would not have hesitated to use it if necessary. If chemical warfare began in Europe, the Allies would take advantage of the prevalence in the absolute volume of their chemical weapons. On Germany’s part, there was the advantage of stocks of chemical weapons of the second generation, their existence being most likely unknown to the intelligence services of the Allies. A special chapter of World War II history is the use of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide (Zyklon B) for the extermination of Jewish people and other nations in concentration camps or possibly chemical-toxicological experiments on humans.

2.5. Chemical Weapons in Nuclear Age

After World War II, there was a high precedence of the development of strategic arsenals based on nuclear technology, but there were also qualitative changes in the development of chemical weapons [9]. A characteristic feature of the first period of the Cold War was the introduction and mass manufacture of G nerve agents (sarin, soman) and the supplementation of chemical weapons of the second generation by even more effective V agents (VX, R-33). More modern tools for chemical attack also occurred, including tube, as well as rocket artillery, air force and ballistic missiles. At the dawn of the 1950s and 1960s, new concepts of conducting “non-lethal” (psychochemical) war was elaborated with the use of psychoactive substances, particularly hallucinogenic glycolates (BZ). In the arsenal of armies, as well as of police and security services, new highly effective irritants arose, which were also employed in military conflicts. The best known example is the mass use of the CS agent in the Vietnam War. American forces concurrently used herbicides on a large scale (particularly based on 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T), the primary purpose of this being the vertical and horizontal control of the vegetation on the battlefield. The mass application of herbicides exerted negative effects on the environment, agriculture and health conditions of the local population [10,11]. In the peak period of the Cold War, the United States developed chemical weapons of the third generation, the principle of which was binary ammunition based on nerve agents (sarin, VX, IVA (intermediate volatility agents)). The Soviet Union reacted with an extensive program (code name FOLIANT, NOVICHOK) for the development of new, fourth generation chemical weapons, and the result was a technology for binary ammunition with nerve agents exerting enhanced toxicity. In the period of the Cold War, chemical weapons were also distributed into countries of the so-called Third World, which considered this technology to be a cheaper alternative to nuclear weapons. The largest advance in this direction was achieved by Iraq, where a chemical arsenal, including more than 3,800 tons of CWA (mustard, tabun, sarin), was accumulated with the help of foreign companies. A major proportion of these stocks were used in the war against Iran and against the local population of Kurds [12]. For an outline of the most important classic CWA and their classification into particular chemical weapons generations, see Table 1 and Table 2.

Table 1. Overview of the most classic chemical warfare agents (CWA).

AgentCode nameChemical nameMolecular weight
Sulfur mustardH, HDBis(2-chloroethyl)sulfide159.1
Nitrogen mustardHN-3Tris(2-chloroethyl)amine204.5
LewisiteLDichlor(2-chlorovinyl)arsane207.3
TabunGAEthyl-(dimethylphosphoramido)cyanidate162.1
SarinGBIsopropyl-methylphosphonofluoridate140.1
SomanGD(3,3-dimethylbutan-2-yl)-methylphosphonofluoridate182.2
CyclosarinGFCyclohexyl-methylphosphonofluoridate180.2
VX agentVXS-[(2-diisopropylamino)ethyl]-O-ethyl-methylphosphonothiolate267.4
R-33 agentR-33S-[(2-diethylamino)ethyl]-O-isobutyl-methylphosphonothiolate267.4
ChloroacetophenoneCNω-Chloroacetophenone154.6
CS agentCS2-Chlorobenzylidene malononitrile188.6
CR agentCRDibenz[b,f]-1,4-oxazepine195.2
BZ agentBZ3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate337.4

Table 2. Generations of classical lethal chemical weapons.

GenerationChemical Weapons (CWA)Biological EffectsExamplesNote
1Choking agentsThey attack lung tissue, primarily causing pulmonary edemaPhosgene, diphosgene, chloropicrinWW I
Blood agentsAffect the bodily functions by inactivating the cytochrome oxidase systemHydrogen cyanide, cyanogen chlorideWW I
Blister agentsThey cause inflammation, blisters, and total destruction of tissueHD, L / HN-1,2,3WWI/1930s
2Nerve agents GNerve agents disrupt the functions of the nervous system by interfering with the enzyme, AChEGA, GB, GDWW II
Nerve agents VAs nerve agents GVX, R-331950s–1960s
3BinaryAs nerve agentsGB-2, VX-2, IVA-21970s–1980s
4Binary NOVICHOKAs nerve agentsA-230, A-232, A-2341980s–1990s

3. Reasons for Adopting the CWC and Contemporary Risks of the Use of Chemical Weapons

3.1. Human Reasons for Adopting CWC

One of the targets of any disarmament action is establishing certain general humanity principles. This also concerns the prohibition of chemical weapons. As early as 1868, a special international military commission in St. Petersburg elaborated a declaration stating that the use of weapons, which bring useless enhancement of the suffering of people or unavoidable death, is against humanity rules. In 1874, a conference was held in Brussels declaring that the war right does not provide unlimited freedom in choosing tools for the destruction of the enemy. Based on this declaration, the conference refuses the use of poisons and poisoned weapons, projectiles and agents, which could cause useless suffering. Given these humanity principles, the Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land was elaborated in Haag from 1899 to 1907, prohibiting the use of poisons or poisoned weapons and also weapons, projectiles or agents that are able to cause useless suffering. There was an analogous prohibition of the use of projectiles having as their only target the propagation of choking or harmful agents. In the course of World War I, no declarations or rules were able to prevent the mass use of chemical weapons. Due to this, based on a resolution of the UN General Assembly, a disarmament conference was arranged in Geneva, which elaborated an agreement of the prohibition of using choking, poisonous or similar gases, liquids, agents or similar means in war and also the prohibition of the use of bacteriological methods in conducting war. This Geneva Protocol, submitted for signing in 1925, has still been an important part of international law, and the CWC also refers to it in its preamble.

3.2. Military-Technological Reasons for Adopting CWC

An important reason for most disarmament initiatives was also the attempts of big powers to cope with the progress of the enemy or to eliminate the lack of success in the development of the technology of a certain type of weapon. For example, in the 1960s, the big powers concluded that biological weapons (particularly pathogenic agents) are not practicable for military purposes, since their effects are quite beyond any control. The result of this was the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological/Biological and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction (Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, BTWC), which was signed in Geneva in 1972 and came into force three years later. As a drawback of the Convention, there is, however, the lack of a control mechanism. One of reasons for this is that the principle of biological weapons and their military use have not yet been unambiguously delimited.

There were no principal doubts about the perspective of chemical weapons in contrast to biological (especially bacteriological) weapons. In spite of this, at the dawn of the 1970s and 1980s, a number of problems were encountered. That time, the United States owned a rather outdated chemical arsenal accumulated in the course of the 1940s to 1950s (the Soviet Union had completed the chemical rearmament of nerve agents more than 10 years later). There was a possibility of solving this problem in two ways: by a complete rearmament based on the most recent scientific-technical knowledge or by completing the program for the development of binary ammunition. General rearmament is, however, enormously economically and technically tedious, and in addition, it also includes the destruction of outdated stocks. On the other hand, even the introduction of binary technology does not facilitate this task. The United States spent considerable funds for the binary program, but the volume of the binary ammunition produced finally accounted for only 2% of the total chemical arsenal. Under these conditions, it was more advantageous to promote the general prohibition of chemical weapons and their total destruction under an international supervision [1]. In this way, the big world powers, under the leadership of the United States and the Soviet Union (and its successor, Russia), gave up their chemical arsenals and considerably restricted the proliferation of chemical weapons and the danger of their use, even in developing countries.

3.3. Operation-Tactical Reasons for Adopting CWC

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