February 20, 2024 | Memo

For Russia, a Year of Setbacks at the OPCW

Yet Member States Still Have Not Imposed Consequences for Moscow’s Chemical Weapons Use
February 20, 2024 | Memo

For Russia, a Year of Setbacks at the OPCW

Yet Member States Still Have Not Imposed Consequences for Moscow’s Chemical Weapons Use

In a blow to Russian influence and prestige, members of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) ousted Russia for the first time ever from the body’s 41-member Executive Council (EC) while electing Ukraine to fill one of three seats up for election in the OPCW’s Eastern European Group.1 Moscow faced a range of setbacks at the OPCW in 2023, thanks both to Western unity and organizational rules that enable strong majorities to overcome obstructionism. The challenge that lies ahead is for the United States and its allies to hold Russia accountable for its serial violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the treaty that established the OPCW to ensure its implementation.

Russian obstructionism diminished in 2022 and 2023, possibly in a bid to protect its seat on the EC. In 2018, Russia and a small coalition of anti-Western states and former Soviet republics began preventing the OPCW from passing decisions by consensus. This coalition tried to shield Moscow’s client state, Syria, from penalties for Damascus’ documented use of chemical weapons against its own people.2 However, the effort failed, and in 2021, Syria became the first-ever OPCW member to face suspension. The Russian-led coalition has also tried to discredit the OPCW and its findings about Moscow’s chemical weapons use, yet it has won few converts to the cause.3

Russia and its partners have delayed major OPCW decisions but have been unable to block them. Decisions in OPCW bodies — the EC and the 193-member Conference of States Parties (CSP) — require a two-thirds vote.4 The Western-led voting bloc has continually surpassed this threshold, yet Washington and its close allies seem to fear defections if measures directly targeting Moscow come up for a vote. Thus, the OPCW has neither imposed meaningful consequences nor demanded accountability for Russia’s continued stockpiling of chemical weapons, its use of the nerve agent Novichok in the attempted assassination of Putin’s critics, its threats to use chemical weapons in Ukraine, or its reported use during 2023 of CWC-banned riot-control agents (RCAs) against Ukrainians.5

A key opportunity to correct this failure will arrive with the July 2024 EC meeting, likely the first gathering after Russia’s ouster from the council. As member states did prior to suspending Syria’s OPCW voting rights and ability to hold office, they should provide a 90-day deadline for Russia’s compliance with the CWC. If Moscow fails to comply, member states should move to suspend Russia’s privileges at the OPCW. They must definitively insist on the full, verifiable dismantling of Vladimir Putin’s chemical weapons program as a condition of Russia’s continued participation in the OPCW.

Diminishing Russian Influence

Executive Council

At the March 2023 meeting of the EC, Russia attempted to stop Romania, running unopposed, from being elected by acclamation as the body’s chair. An official close to the OPCW conveyed to FDD that Russia demanded, in exchange for its vote, that member states allow Moscow to keep its EC seat, up for election at the next CSP meeting. Member states refused, and Russia was reportedly the only country that voted to oppose Romania’s chairmanship — the OPCW does not publish final tallies of the vote for chair, and ballots are secret.6

Russia caused no obstruction at the July 2023 EC meeting, where it typically tries to block adoption of the OPCW’s annual report.7 At the October EC gathering, Moscow forced one vote regarding the OPCW’s annual program and budget, but member states still passed the measure. China and Iran joined Russia in opposition, as usual.8

Date Decision Passed? Yeas Nays Abstentions No Vote/No Attendance
Oct. 2023 Draft OPCW Program and Budget for 2024-2025 Yes 34 4 3 0


Review Conference

Every five years, the OPCW holds a CWC Review Conference to assess implementation of the convention and set goals for the future. At the beginning of the May 2023 gathering, Russia lost a secret ballot election requested by 18 members of the OPCW’s Eastern European Group to be vice-chair of the review conference, a leadership post that endures for the conference event. Two seats were available to the OPCW’s Eastern European Group, and between Russia, Lithuania, and North Macedonia, Moscow lost.9

Nevertheless, Russia and its coalition prevented the conference from adopting a final document, which can only be adopted by consensus, allowing a single state to block it.10 Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Cuba, and a handful of other states rejected language in the draft document that highlighted Russia’s and Syria’s CWC violations, Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and takeover and threats to Kyiv’s nuclear facilities, as well as other matters.

Conference of States Parties

At the November/December CSP, Russia lost its EC seat for the new term that begins in May 2024.11 The CSP elected Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania in a secret ballot election to a two-year term. Russia, Bulgaria, and Albania will no longer have seats for the May 2024-May 2026 term.

Moscow and its coalition also forced two decisions to be put to a vote. The CSP passed the OPCW’s draft program and budget, adopted by the EC in October 2023, by a margin of 98-8 despite the Russian bloc’s opposition. The eight nays included Belarus, Bolivia, Brazil, China, Iran, Nicaragua, Russia, and Uzbekistan.

The CSP also passed a new Syria decision that recommends member states restrict the transfer of chemical warfare agent precursors and dual-use facilities and equipment that could support Damascus’ ongoing chemical weapons program.12 Only 10 states opposed the restrictions, but 45 abstained — the highest number of abstentions in a single recorded OPCW vote.13

Date Decision Passed? Yeas Nays Abstentions No Vote/No Attendance
Nov/Dec. 2023 Draft Program and Budget for 2024-2025 Yes 98 8 21 66
Nov/Dec. 2023 Addressing the Threat from Chemical

Weapons Use and the Threat of Future Use

(Syria decision)

Yes 69 10 45 69

OPCW decisions put to a vote, 2018-2023

*The 2020 CSP was split into two parts due to COVID-19 considerations. Part of the meeting occurred in November/December 2020, and the remainder was held in April 2021. The figures for both are included under 2020.


As shown in the table above, Russia has made progressively fewer efforts over the past five years to obstruct OPCW business by forcing recorded votes. The suspension of Syria’s voting rights in 2021 led not to a backlash from the Russian bloc but a further decline in obstructionism. Yet if and when the EC and CSP undertake a serious effort to hold Russia accountable for its numerous violations, Moscow is likely to invest substantial effort in blocking the body’s actions. This should not deter Washington or its allies. An October 2021 OPCW effort to demand clarifications from Russia about the Novichok attack on opposition leader Alexei Navalny failed to achieve anything except Moscow providing more than 200 pages of denials, counterfactuals, and misinformation in response, rather than admissions or factual information.14 In their attempt to pursue courses of remedial action available in the CWC, member states opted to inflict a meaningless procedural request on Russia but no penalties.15 Yet the CWC provides a better pathway for accountability: suspension.

Once OPCW member states suspended Syria’s voting rights and ability to hold office, Russian obstructionism actually diminished.16

Washington should lead OPCW member states in issuing an ultimatum at the upcoming July EC meeting, likely the first EC meeting after Russia’s tenure comes to an end. The United States and its allies should demand Russia demonstrate compliance with the CWC within 90 days or face suspension of its voting rights and privileges, just as Syria did. Absent compliance, member states could adopt the suspension decision at the October EC meeting. The CSP could vote to formalize the decision at its meeting next winter. Pursuing the “Syria model” with Russia puts the onus squarely on a CWC violator to come into compliance with the obligations to which it voluntarily committed.

Washington will also have to hold its coalition together if and when Moscow attempts to cause unprecedented disruptions at the OPCW as payback for its suspension. To facilitate such retaliation, Russia may seek re-election to the EC at the CSP in late 2024. Electing alternative members of the Eastern European Group will be imperative. It is time to send Moscow a clear message that the era of impunity is over.


International Organizations Russia