May 12, 2023 | The Washington Post

It’s time to hold Russia accountable for its use of chemical weapons

The film “Navalny” won the Academy Award in March for best documentary feature. The picture details the Kremlin’s 2020 apparent attempt to assassinate Alexei Navalny using a chemical nerve agent and Navalny’s subsequent imprisonment. Today, he languishes in poor health in solitary confinement within a Russian penal colony.

That Oscar for the film about Navalny was well-deserved, but there is a better way to honor his legacy: by holding Russia accountable for its ongoing, banned possession and use of chemical weapons.

This month, the United States and its allies have a chance to right that wrong at an important conference to be held in The Hague by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which monitors international efforts to eliminate the production and use of chemical weapons.

Unbelievably, Russia remains an OPCW member in good standing despite seemingly maintaining a prohibited chemical weapons program. Washington should reinforce its zero-tolerance policy and marshal diplomatic support to present Russian President Vladimir Putin with an ultimatum: Disclose the full extent of his program or be suspended from the organization.

More than 2½ years ago, the Russian opposition leader was poisoned and became violently ill on a flight in Russia, an attack the U.S. State Department says the Russian state is responsible for. In what looked to be an orchestrated coverup, the hospital that subsequently treated Navalny tried to keep him from leaving for treatment abroad before the nerve agent in his system could dissipate and leave no trace.

After international pressure, including from then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Kremlin acquiesced to Navalny’s evacuation to a German hospital capable of treating complex poisonings. Berlin asked the OPCW to investigate, and a team collected samples from Navalny. Several independent labs confirmed the presence of the banned nerve agent Novichok — a substance that’s mere existence, much less its deployment, contravenes Russia’s obligations under international agreements.

Navalny made a miraculous recovery, and then turned the tables on Putin and his henchmen. Working with Bellingcat as well as CNN, he identified his attempted assassins. Five months after the attack, Navalny returned to Moscow, accepting that he would likely face political imprisonment and torture. The Russian state promptly arrested him, and, following sham trials, Navalny has spent the past two years in prison and a maximum-security penal colony.

Yet this was not the first time Putin has seemingly used chemical weapons.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition leader and Post contributor, might have been the victim of a Novichok attack in 2015 and 2017. Moscow recently sentenced him to 25 years in prison on spurious charges.

In 2018, it’s suspected that Russian intelligence agents traveled to Britain to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a Russian double agent who defected to the U.K. Novichok was used on Skripal and his daughter. They survived, but the poison inadvertently killed a mother of three who later happened upon the bottle used to transport the nerve agent.

In 2020, the Justice Department issued an indictment against six computer hackers from Russia’s military intelligence agency for a variety of reasons, including spear phishing campaigns targeting the OPCW’s Skripal investigation.

The OPCW has also reported in impressive detail on the Russian military’s support for Syria’s chemical weapon attacks in Douma. Yet Russia still enjoys prominence in the OPCW, where it long shielded Syria from penalties for Damascus’s chemical weapons attacks on its own people.

Russia also uses disinformation campaigns to delegitimize the OPCW, raise doubts about the organization’s impartiality and corral the votes of other rogue states. It has also attempted to lay a pretext for a false-flag chemical weapons attack on Ukraine, further underscoring its weak commitment to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which underpins the OPCW.

Despite Russia’s active campaign to undermine the core purpose of the OPCW, the United States and Europe have issued a series of sanctions and strongly worded statements against Russia, but have taken no action where it could be most effective.

At the conference later this month, Washington should build a diplomatic coalition to give Putin an ultimatum: fully disclose his chemical weapons program within 90 days or face suspension of Russia’s OPCW voting rights and ability to hold office. At the Executive Council, the OPCW’s policymaking body — which next meets in July — a vote of two-thirds of the 41 current member states can pass a decision. Given current membership of the Executive Council and previous voting behavior, the United States and its allies stand a solid chance of passing an ultimatum for Russia.

In 2021, OPCW members — led by Washington and Europe — used a similar approach to hold Syria accountable for its continued use of chemical weapons and suspended Damascus’ voting rights and privileges after the 90-day deadline had passed. The results have been strikingly positive: Damascus can no longer stymie routine OPCW business and the organization is functioning more effectively. With Syria sidelined, Russia and its voting coalition no longer attempt to hold every OPCW decision hostage as a means of delaying Syria-related investigations. Sidelining Russia’s troublemaking ability in the OPCW would have similar, positive effects.

The erosion of decades-long norms against possession and use of chemical weapons threatens all peace-seeking countries. It is inexcusable that the United States and its allies have failed to hold Moscow to the same standard as Syria. The United States must send a clear message to Putin to deter further chemical weapons use as tools of intimidation and war.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow and senior director of the Nonproliferation and Biodefense Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and served as the National Security Council’s senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense in the Trump administration. Andrea Stricker is a research fellow and deputy director of the program.


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