May 10, 2024 | Policy Brief

Washington Accuses Russia of Chemical Weapons Attacks in Ukraine

The United States last week accused Russia of using chemical weapons against Ukrainian troops and sanctioned 12 Russian entities and individuals associated with Vladimir Putin’s ongoing chemical weapons program. The finding points to yet another instance of Moscow’s violation of international norms and conventions through the continued possession, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons.

On May 1, the State Department issued a new determination that Russia “has used the chemical weapon chloropicrin against Ukrainian forces in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).” The department notified Congress as required by the 1991 Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act. Chloropicrin is a poison gas that Germany used in World War I and is included on the CWC Schedule 3 list of toxic chemicals banned for use in warfare. It also has industrial purposes, so its possession is not prohibited but is subject to declaration and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspections. Ukraine has alleged for months that Russia was using chloropicrin against soldiers serving on the front lines.

In addition, the State Department assessed, “Russia has used riot control agents [RCAs] as a method of warfare in Ukraine, also in violation of the CWC.” The department first confirmed this finding last month in its annual report to Congress on Compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. Ukraine has claimed since 2022 that Moscow was using RCAs on the battlefield, an activity banned under the CWC.

In response to the annual report’s findings — which were informed by U.S. intelligence community assessments — the State Department sanctioned three Russian government entities and four Russian companies. Concurrently, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on three Russian entities and two individuals it said are “involved in procuring items for military institutes involved in Russia’s chemical and biological weapons programs.”

Although Moscow is a state party to the 1993 CWC, the United States has certified every year since 2018 in the State Department’s annual arms control compliance reports that Russia is non-compliant with the CWC and “retains an undeclared chemical weapons program.”

Russia used the prohibited Soviet-produced nerve agent Novichok during a 2018 attack in the United Kingdom against a Russian double agent and his daughter, who both survived the incident. A British mother of three later encountered the Novichok and died. In 2020, Moscow attempted to assassinate prominent dissident Alexei Navalny using Novichok. Navalny survived the attack and was later arrested by the Putin regime. He died in a Russian prison in February. The OPCW confirmed the presence of Novichok in both instances.

OPCW member states, including the United States, have failed to hold Russia accountable for its CWC violations and continuing maintenance of a chemical weapons program — a program whose latest attacks appear directed at Ukraine.

Washington should urge Kyiv to request a technical assistance visit from the OPCW secretariat so the organization can independently assess evidence of Russia’s alleged chemical weapon use.

Moreover, for far too long, OPCW member states have failed to hold Moscow accountable for its continued violations of the CWC. When the OPCW’s 41-member Executive Council next meets in July, it should issue an ultimatum for Russia to demonstrate compliance with the CWC or face suspension of its voting rights and ability to hold office at the OPCW.

Russia can no longer remain a member in good standing at the OPCW while it continues to maintain a chemical weapons program and use these weapons in Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow and deputy director of the nonproliferation and biodefense program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Anthony Ruggiero is a senior adjunct fellow at FDD 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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