The Soviet-era chemical weapons program began on the 17th of August 1967, under a decree from the USSR Council of Ministers. Thus began the beginning of the secret “F” programs which went under codenames: Flask, Factor, Ferment, Flute, Fouette and Flora.
By September 2017, Russia claimed to have completed its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroyed all of its arsenals. However, it is unclear as to whether this action was actualised in its entirety.
Approximately 80 per cent of Russia’s stockpile is reportedly made up of nerve agents. The reported agents include Sarin (GB), Soman (GD) and viscous Soman, Mustard (H), Lewisite (L), Mustard-Lewisite mixture, Phosgene, and Russian VX.
Russian VX generally referred to as R-VX, is similar to the U.S. variant but has some structural differences. Additionally, unlike the VX in the U.S. stockpile, R-VX is found in both viscous and non-thickened varieties, requiring the destruction process to address both variants differently.
Based on their volatility, chemical weapons are classified as persistent or non-persistent agents. The more volatile an agent, the quicker it evaporates and disperses.
The more volatile agents like chlorine, phosgene and hydrogen cyanide are non-persistent agents whereas the less volatile agents like mustard and Vx gas are persistent agents.
Yperite or Mustard gas is a persistent chemical weapon that causes skin-blistering and general toxicity. The lethal dose for action through the skin is 80 mg/kg of body mass. If not treated, death typically occurs within 24 hours. There are no known antidotes and has a mutagenic effect.
Lewisite, another persistent, is a vesicant or blistering agent that causes blistering of the skin and mucous membranes on contact. Notable symptoms include “Lewisite shock” (rapid decrease in blood pressure), Skin blistering and inflammation, irritated eyes and shortness of breath.
First produced to be used during World War I, a concentration of 0.12 mg/litre can cause death through respiratory organs. However, the typical lethal dose of Lewisite, applied to the skin in liquid droplets, is 35 mg/kg.
But the good news is that there is an antidote for Lewisite. When applied quickly, exposure is survivable.
THE NASTY STUFF
VX is a synthesised chemical weapon known as an organophosphate nerve agent. Nerve agents are the most toxic and are closely related to common pesticides, albeit exponentially more powerful.
Even a tiny drop of VX agent on the skin can cause sweating and muscle twitch. But large doses cause convulsions (can cause a person to break their own spine), loss of consciousness, paralysis and finally respiratory failure leading to death.
Sarin is another synthesised nerve agent. It was notably used in the 1994 and 1995 Tokyo subway attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Lethal concentration is about 0.2 mg/litre with exposure of a minute. In liquid droplet form, Sarin causes complete poisoning through the skin.
Symptoms of exposure appear within a few seconds and operate by preventing the human body’s “on/off” switch for glands and muscles. Antidotes are available but must be administered quickly. Mild exposure can be treated but severe exposure is fatal.
Soman, a colourless liquid, is a lethal nerve agent at around 0.02 mg/litre with exposure of 1 minute. It causes general poison in action on the skin in a vapour state. Also known as ‘GD’ Soman is reported to smell like rotten fruit.
A room-temperature solid, Soman mixes readily with water and can contaminate water supplies. It operates on the same principles as Sarin but is less volatile. A lethal dose of Soman will result in convulsions and paralysis leading to respiratory failure.
The advent of third-generation chemical weapons in the Soviet Union was a direct consequence not only of the Cold War but also of attempts of the MCC (Military Chemical Complex) to “keep itself alive.”
These chemicals embody dual advances in special chemistry. Not only are these types of chemicals new but they are administered more effectively using binary weapons systems and multiple warheads.
As a whole, the “Foliant” program mentioned earlier yielded five new promising chemicals. One of which (A-232, or “novichok-5″) is said to be the most deadly nerve agent ever created.
Reliable data is not available on the combat characteristics of third-generation chemical weapons. It is only known that the new chemical weapons are superior to American VX and they practically defy medical treatment.
Among other features, the relative simplicity of manufacture and accessibility of raw material makes third-gen chemical weapons a cause for concern for any nation on the wrong end of the stick.