July 10, 2023 | Policy Brief

OPCW Meeting Sets Up Critical Opportunity to Sideline Russia 

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will convene this week for a thrice-yearly meeting of its Executive Council (EC). The 41-nation policy-making body has a chance to hold Russia accountable for Moscow’s prolonged non-compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and maintenance of a chemical weapons program.  

The EC meeting comes after Russia and a small minority of other states prevented the OPCW’s 193 members from reaching a consensus final document at the CWC’s fifth review conference in May. At the conference, Moscow and its bloc — which includes obstreperous states such as China, Iran, Syria, and Cuba — objected to strong language condemning the use of chemical weapons by Russia and Syria as well as Moscow’s takeover of Ukrainian nuclear facilities.  

Russia joined the convention as an original member in 1993 and claimed to have disposed of all chemical weapon stockpiles by 2017. In 2018, however, Moscow attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom using a nerve agent, Novichok. In 2020, it used Novichok again to try to kill Alexei Navalny, a now-jailed Russian challenger to Vladimir Putin. Investigative groups and media outlets have detailed how several post-Soviet entities allegedly continue Russia’s chemical weapons development efforts. 

Damascus joined the convention in 2013 with Russia’s assistance. Yet the OPCW documented Syria’s ongoing mass chemical weapons attacks against its own people. In response, OPCW member states used the July 2020 EC meeting to give Damascus an ultimatum: come into compliance with the CWC within 90 days or face suspension. When Syria did not comply, the OPCW voted in April 2021 to suspend Damascus’ OPCW voting rights and privileges. As a result, Syria may no longer hold office or exercise its vote at OPCW meetings. 

Two years on, Syria’s suspension has borne fruit. The OPCW functions more optimally since Russia no longer routinely holds up OPCW business to stymie the body’s Syria-related investigations in order to protect the Assad regime. However, Russia and its bloc continue to obstruct organizational decisions to uphold the CWC, as the outcome of the May review conference demonstrates. 

Member states must use the opportunity provided by the July EC meeting to issue Russia a Syria-style ultimatum: disclose its chemical weapons program within 90 days or face suspension.  

If Moscow fails to comply, the EC can recommend Russia’s suspension at the body’s mid-October meeting. The OPCW’s all-member Conference of States Parties can finalize the decision at its meeting that begins in late November.  

The Biden administration must lead the effort to steer OPCW member states to hold Russia accountable for its chemical weapons possession and use. Deterring Moscow’s next chemical attack — including potentially in Ukraine — requires Washington to expend the necessary diplomatic capital to counter Russia’s CWC violations. 

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. For more analysis from the authors and FDD 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. 


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