September 29, 2022 | Policy Brief

U.S. Must Show Russia There Is No Impunity for Chemical Weapons Use

A meeting next week of the Executive Council (EC) of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) presents an opportunity for the United States and its allies to demand Russian compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). If Moscow does not remedy its flagrant violation of the CWC, the EC may have enough votes to start the process of suspending Russia from the OPCW.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and threats to use weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons, have shifted the focus of the United States and its partners from holding Moscow accountable for prior breaches of the CWC to preventing future chemical attacks. But in doing so, they risk missing the chance to penalize Russia’s previous violations.

In 2018, Russia used the chemical nerve agent, Novichok, in an assassination attempt on a double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in the United Kingdom. The resulting attack killed an innocent mother of three instead of the intended victim. In 2020, Russia used Novichok again to poison Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Despite Moscow’s clear possession and use of chemical weapons in violation of its CWC obligations — as well as its threat to use chemical weapons in Ukraine — Russia has remained an OPCW member in good standing.

Forty-five member states have joined a statement issued during the October 2021 EC meeting that triggered a fact-finding and clarification process regarding the Navalny attack. These 45 states posed a series of questions to Moscow aimed at clarifying what transpired. Predictably, Russia responded with denials and presented its own series of questions, and the effort failed to hold Moscow accountable. There have been two subsequent EC meetings since then but no further effort to hold Russia accountable.

The OPCW, however, has a more effective precedent than fact-finding requests for penalizing CWC non-compliance. In July 2020, the EC voted to give Syria a 90-day deadline to demonstrate CWC compliance following Damascus’ flagrant use of chemical weapons since 2012. After Syria’s failure to comply and some additional delays because of the COVID-19 pandemic, in April 2021, the Conference of States Parties (CSP), which includes all member states, suspended Syria’s voting rights and privileges at the OPCW. This notably reduced Damascus’ interference with and troublemaking ability in the organization, which Moscow and its supporters consistently aided and abetted.

Given recent changes in EC membership, the United States and its OPCW partners may now be able to gather enough votes to pass a similar ultimatum. They could demand that Moscow demonstrate CWC compliance within 90 days or face suspension of its OPCW voting rights and privileges.

A two-thirds margin, or 28 out of 41 votes, is necessary to pass an EC decision, and 27 current EC members voted in favor of Syria’s suspension. With sufficient diplomatic effort, Washington and its partners could convince these states and a handful more to vote in favor of a similar ultimatum for Russia.

On the one year anniversary of Navalny’s poisoning, the State Department warned Moscow that there would be “no impunity for the use of chemical weapons” and “any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and contravenes international norms.” Next week’s meeting is an opportunity for Washington and its partners to stand up to Moscow and send a strong message about their willingness to counter Russia’s malign role in world affairs.

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow and deputy director of the nonproliferation and biodefense program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow and senior director of the program and served as the National Security Council’s senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense in the Trump administration. They both contribute to FDD’s International Organizations Program. For more analysis from the authors, the International Organizations Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea and Anthony on Twitter @StrickerNonpro and @NatSecAnthony. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


International Organizations Nonproliferation Russia