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Putting chemical weapons questions to Russia backfired

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russia poisoned Alexei Navalny with a nerve agent more than a year ago. The United States and its allies responded at a recent meeting of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) by presenting Moscow with a weak set of questions about the incident. Russian president Vladimir Putin must have laughed at his good fortune; this academic exercise, spearheaded by United Kingdom and supported by the Biden administration, will not hold Moscow accountable for its behavior. 

The OPCW met in The Hague in October to enforce the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which has an explicit goal of eliminating chemical weapons. The Executive Council, the organization’s 41-member policymaking body, did not take any formal action against Russia, even though it was the body’s fifth meeting since Navalny’s poisoning.

In August 2020, Navalny fell ill on a flight within Russia and was eventually medevacked to Germany. Several laboratories, including those used by the OPCW, confirmed the presence of a chemical nerve agent, Novichok, in his system. The Soviet Union is the only country known to have developed Novichok. Moscow in 2017 claimed it dismantled its inherited stocks of chemical weapons, but there is ample evidence to suggest otherwise. 

The poisoning of Navalny was not Putin’s first use of Novichok. More than three years ago, Moscow used it during an attempted assassination in the UK of a Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal. The attack killed a British citizen and injured several others.

In both attacks, authorities and the media uncovered substantial involvement of Russian operatives.

The United States and European allies responded to the Navalny poisoning by sanctioning the entities and individuals associated with Russia’s chemical weapons program. But the response in the OPCW was largely limited to strongly worded statements condemning Russia’s activities that Putin predictably brushed off.

On the first day of the Executive Council meeting, the UK led a coalition of 44 other member states formally requesting that Russia answer questions regarding the Navalny incident under CWC Article IX, which gives member states the opportunity “to obtain clarification from another state party on any situation which may be considered ambiguous or which gives rise to a concern about its possible non-compliance” with the CWC.” Moscow had ten days to reply.

Unsurprisingly to those who follow Russian troublemaking in international organizations, Moscow responded two days later with a broadside against the entire effort. Russia submitted a massive 235-page document filled with trivia and disinformation, dismissing evidence of a chemical weapon attack against Navalny and calling into question the OPCW’s credibility. Russia also decided to use Article IX to submit its own set of questions to the UK, Germany, France, Sweden, and the OPCW’s technical secretariat, all of which detected Novichok in Navalny’s or the UK victims’ biomedical samples. The UK mission to the OPCW tweeted that Russia was “not engaging with [the] questions and therefore not meeting its obligations under the CWC.”

Moscow has long created obstacles to the work of the OPCW and was itching for a fight. In an organization that used to pass decisions by consensus, Russia now forces items to be put to a vote, delaying the council from adopting routine items such as budgets and agendas. On many substantive issues, it also peels off votes from member states that do not want to vote against Russia or choose not to get involved and abstain.

Russia is fully adept at attempting to use the organization for its other goal — weakening the CWC and delegitimizing the OPCW. Russia has shielded its client state Syria for years from consequences for Damascus’s egregious use of chemical weapons. While the OPCW made significant inroads in dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons, Damascus did not fully comply and continued to use these weapons even after joining the OPCW in 2013. After more than seven years of engagements and Russian obstruction, OPCW member states finally suspended Syria from the organization earlier this year.

The slow-burn approach to Russia’s use of chemical weapons appears to reflect a long-term plan by the UK, U.S., and its partners to institute accountability. U.S. and European sanctions and condemnations that followed the UK and Navalny attacks were important, but OPCW member states must give Moscow an ultimatum for compliance. Specifically, the coalition must use the Syria model where the council gave Damascus 90 days to comply or face consequences. If Moscow does not comply, then OPCW member states should suspend Russia’s voting rights and privileges, including its ability to hold office.

A review of the 45 countries that supported the letter requesting Russia’s clarifications under Article IX reveals an uphill climb. Only 15 of the signatories are Executive Council members, and 28 votes are needed to pass a substantive action in the council. 

If the coalition is to be successful in passing an ultimatum for Moscow’s compliance, leading governments will need to conduct significant diplomatic legwork and gather votes to their side. These efforts should be pursued at the highest levels, up to and including Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Joe Biden.

There is hope. At the OPCW’s all-193-member Conference of States Parties last spring, 18 current Executive Council members signed on to a statement condemning the Navalny attack, and 28 current members voted in favor of suspending Syria. The UK and U.S. will need to convince frequent abstainers to take a decisive stand and uphold the global anti-chemical weapons norm.

The exchange of questions has clearly backfired on the U.S. and its allies.

It provided Putin’s diplomats a perfect opportunity to sow doubt and delay meaningful action. Yet the Biden administration has clearly said that Russia poisoned Navalny, and there must be accountability for that action. Now the administration and its partners must do the diplomatic heavy lifting to advocate for real change in the OPCW.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD), where Andrea Stricker is a research fellow. Follow the authors on Twitter @NatSecAnthony and @StrickerNonpro. FDD is a Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Tags Aleksei Navalny chemical weapons Chemical Weapons Convention Joe Biden Novichok agent Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Poisoning of Alexei Navalny Poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal Russia Syria Vladimir Putin

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