Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinErdoğan says Turkey plans to buy another Russian defense system EU 'denounces' Russian malicious cyber activity aimed at member states Navalny knocks Apple, Google for removing voting app MORE is the target of an unusual form of punishment. He reportedly maintains a program for assassinating dissidents with chemical agents, yet top European leaders cannot wait to embrace the former spy in a bear hug of engagement and recognition. Following his June summit with the Russian leader, Joe BidenJoe BidenPelosi sets Thursday vote on bipartisan infrastructure bill Pressure grows to cut diplomatic red tape for Afghans left behind President Biden is making the world a more dangerous place MORE spoke of Putin in sympathetic terms, despite claiming to have warned him about his provocative behavior. Such warnings ring hollow as Western leaders again allowed Putin to avoid accountability at last week’s meeting of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The Hague-based OPCW has been busy with its investigation into Syria’s repeated use of chemical weapons against civilians and debunking both Russian and Syrian claims that the Bashar al-Assad regime dismantled its chemical weapons program in 2014. Assad has benefited from Putin’s support for Damascus at the OPCW, because Putin knows that if the OPCW cannot hold a lesser rogue state like Syria accountable, then it will never challenge Moscow.
However, Putin’s defenses began to crack when the OPCW voted in April to revoke Damascus’s voting rights and privileges at the organization. The decision drew strength from a rare bipartisan consensus in the United States — the Trump administration initiated the OPCW accountability process in July 2020 and the Biden administration successfully finished it in April 2021.
The OPCW now faces very strong evidence that Russia, one of its most influential members, maintains a chemical weapons program that it uses to attack enemies of the state. Moscow claimed that it fully dismantled the program in 2017 as required by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), but Moscow has used chemical weapons at least two times since then.
The Kremlin famously used a chemical nerve agent in August 2020 to poison Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was evacuated to Germany for treatment. Berlin’s national laboratory and several others, as well as the OPCW itself, confirmed the presence of Novichok in his system. Novichok, an old Soviet chemical weapon that cripples the central nervous system, typically kills its victims swiftly and in agonizing fashion. That Navalny survived was miraculous, yet he voluntarily returned to Russia, resulting in his immediate arrest.
This was not Putin’s first poisoning, as Russia used Novichok in 2018 in the United Kingdom as part of a botched assassination attempt against former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter. The operation injured the intended targets and two police officers, and tragically killed a civilian mother of three. In recent years, Russia may have also used chemical weapons against other dissidents, but the facts are obscured by the passage of time and lack of access to victims’ biomedical samples.
The Biden administration is seemingly unwilling to expend the diplomatic capital to hold Putin accountable. Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenWHO looks to revive probe into COVID-19 origins: report Defense policy bill would require 'forever chemical' testing at military sites Biden criticizes treatment of Haitians as 'embarrassment' MORE in February urged Russia to comply with its CWC obligations and noted, “There can be no impunity. We must preserve international law against chemical weapons — or we risk normalizing their use.” This language was echoed in the U.S. statement at last week’s OPCW meeting with a request that Russia explain the Navalny poisoning.
But words alone do not work with the former KGB spy master, who understands pushback mainly in terms of consequences. The Biden administration waived mandatory sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will further Putin’s energy extortion of Ukraine and increase Western Europe’s dependency on Russian gas. The Biden administration also missed a deadline earlier this month to impose a second round of sanctions for the Navalny poisoning, as required by the U.S. Chemical and Biological Weapons Act.
Russia has doubled down on the Biden administration’s diplomatic blunder by starting a disinformation campaign alleging that Germany and the OPCW are engaged in a conspiracy involving Navalny’s poisoning. Inaction in international organizations has consequences, something the Biden administration has not yet learned.
To reverse this trend, Biden should begin the diplomatic work now to leverage the October meeting of the OPCW executive council, a 41-member policy-making body, and employ the “Syria model” to address Russia’s actions. In July 2020, the council gave Assad 90 days to reveal the full extent of Syria’s chemical weapons program and demonstrate compliance with the CWC, which means disclosing and dismantling any remaining chemical weapons, banned chemicals, and precursors, as well as their locations. Assad failed to comply, so the OPCW’s all-member Conference of States Parties, after delay due mostly to the pandemic, moved in April to suspend Syria’s OPCW voting rights and ability to hold office.
Heavy diplomatic lifting by the United States will be needed to muster a decision in the executive council, which passes decisions only by a two-thirds majority.
In the end, a mere 14 adverse votes or abstentions (or however many represent one-third of all members present and voting) could block a decision to hold Moscow responsible for chemical weapons use. The council’s action against Syria passed with 29 affirmative votes, so the margin will be slim. Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake SullivanJake SullivanSchumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks Sen. Hawley's 'holds' on Biden nominees are hostage-taking, not policymaking Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' MORE will need to call their foreign counterparts to ensure that the U.S. and its partners can overcome a blocking minority.
Even if Russia refuses to cooperate with the OPCW, such decisions set a standard about what the international community will or will not tolerate. Over time, pushback against Moscow’s ongoing interference at the OPCW will weaken Russia’s ability to disrupt the work of the organization.
The OPCW’s singular focus is “working together for a world free of chemical weapons,” a goal Russia does not appear to share. If it is unwilling to change, member states should suspend its voting rights, too.
The Biden administration must hold Putin responsible, or else show America to be a paper tiger unwilling to stand up for its core values, as well as the basic tenets of humanitarian and international law.
Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Andrea Stricker is a research fellow. Follow them on Twitter @NatSecAnthony and @StrickerNonpro. FDD (@FDD) is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.