December 1, 2023 | Policy Brief

Ukraine Defeats Russia in Historic OPCW Election

Ukraine was elected this week to the 41-member Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), defeating Russia and unseating Moscow for the first time in the OPCW’s 26-year history. Kyiv’s victory underscores positive, albeit inadequate, progress by member states to hold Moscow accountable for its violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

OPCW member states are elected to serve a two-year term on the Executive Council, the organization’s key policymaking body. Half the council is elected each year at the annual meeting of the all-member Conference of States Parties (CSP). The CWC, which created the OPCW, allocates to each region of the world a set number of seats on the Executive Council, with Eastern Europe allocated five seats.

Three seats in the region were up for election this year, with Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania elected for the May 2024-May 2026 term. These three nations will replace Russia, Bulgaria, and Albania, which will complete their terms next May. Elected at the 2022 CSP, North Macedonia and Romania will hold seats until May 2025.

Russian media quickly lamented Moscow’s unseating, while Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy took a victory lap on X. Last month, Russia also lost a bid to return to the UN Human Rights Council.

However, congratulations should be short lived since the OPCW member states have still not penalized Russia for its documented CWC violations.

In 2018, Moscow used Novichok, a Soviet-era chemical nerve agent, in the United Kingdom in an attempted assassination of a Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter. Moscow should have dismantled and disposed of all its chemical weapons under the terms of the CWC. In 2020, Russia used Novichok again in an assassination attempt inside Russia on Putin challenger Alexei Navalny. In both instances, the OPCW investigated and provided confirmation of the presence of Novichok. Authorities and investigative reporting later confirmed the role of Russian agents in the attacks.

Moscow also has a long and documented history of obstructing the OPCW’s investigations of Syria’s use of chemical weapons. In addition, it has threatened chemical weapons attacks on Ukraine.

Despite clear evidence of Moscow’s CWC non-compliance and continued stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, OPCW member states have limited themselves to verbal condemnations of Russia even though they have other means of holding Moscow to account.

After seven years of ongoing chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime against its own people, in 2020, OPCW member states gave Syria a 90-day deadline to fully disclose its chemical weapons program. The Assad regime did not comply, and the OPCW moved in 2021 to suspend Damascus’ OPCW voting rights and ability to hold office. The United States and its allies should pursue a similar approach with Russia.

Russia and America’s adversaries believe they can use chemical weapons with impunity. The Biden administration must reinforce the international standard of no chemical weapons use by reminding Putin there are consequences for his actions.

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 X @StrickerNonpro and @NatSecAnthony. Follow FDD on X @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


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