Russia and Ongoing Challenges to the Chemical Weapons Convention

November 30, 2020
Hanna Notte

Russia and ongoing challenges to the Chemical Weapons Convention: Syria, Navalny, and ways out of the impasse

The political fallout from the recent poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny with a new type of Novichok agent has played out in a highly public and dramatic fashion. Navalny’s transfer to Berlin for treatment at the Charité, and the subsequent identification by a German military toxicology lab of traces of a poisonous substance from the Novichok group in his skin, revived an intra-German debate about the political wisdom of North Stream 2 and broader relations with Russia. Russia, for its part, publicly derided Germany’s handling of the incident as betraying Berlin’s intent to become the leader among those pursuing a further cooling with Russia. The incident also led to an EU decision for restrictive measures against Russian individuals and institutions over the proliferation and use of chemical weapons (CW). Beyond these political ramifications, however, it remains to be seen what the Navalny incident, which Germany referred to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to elicit technical assistance, spells for the future of the CW regime. That regime has continued to experience challenges this past year, especially given disagreements among states parties over allegations related to Syria’s incomplete declarations and continued CW use.

Alexey Navalny at a Moscow Rally in 2013

Alexey Navalny at a Moscow Rally in 2013, Source: WikiMedia Commons

Concerns over the resultant, unprecedented institutional stresses at the OPCW stand particularly acute as Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) states parties gather for their 25th annual conference in The Hague this week. How the Syrian and Navalny dossiers are handled at the conference – with few avenues left for restoring the ethos of consensus, which was the hallmark of OPCW decision-making for almost two decades – will be critical. Considering the mix of old and new challenges facing the CW regime going forward, as well as the long legacy of past Russian cooperation with the OPCW, it would be welcome if states parties decided to exploit the diplomatic flexibility afforded by the Treaty, to keep the door open for a rapprochement with Moscow.

Allegations of Syrian Noncompliance with the CWC

Even before Navalny’s poisoning, the CW regime was bedeviled by years of contention among states parties over the pursuit of attribution of and accountability for continued CW use in Syria. Cooperation in the destruction of Syria’s declared CW stockpile in 2013-4 gave way to disputes – pitting Russia, Syria and allied states versus other OPCW members – over efforts including the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) and most recently the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT). When the latter issued its first report in April this year, concluding that the Syrian Air Force was responsible for three CW attacks in 2017, Russia refused to accept the results. The standoff over the IIT report has dominated the agenda within the OPCW since, with Russia initially boycotting a UN Security Council (UNSC) debate to discuss the report, and later requesting Arria Formula meetings at the Council to table its own concerns over the Syrian CW dossier. Arguably, the chasm over Syria has resulted in a loss of civility in engagement and mutual recriminations at the OPCW and UNSC, particularly between Russia and Western states.

The OPCW Executive Council reacted to the IIT report by adopting a decision on July 9, obligating Syria to declare the totality of its CW program within a 90-day deadline. That deadline has since passed, and while Syria has continued its pro-forma engagement with the Declarations Assessment Team (DAT) – an older OPCW mechanism mandated to resolve identified gaps and inconsistencies in Syria’s chemical declarations – it has outright ignored the July decision, backed by Russia. Some states parties are calling for procedural action in The Hague this week against Damascus under Article XII of the CWC, including the cancellation of voting privileges. But beyond such largely symbolic steps, options for bringing Syria into compliance will soon be exhausted, given Russian and Chinese blockage at the UNSC (to which the question of Syrian compliance could be referred) and a general reluctance to invoke “challenge inspections” pursuant to Article IX of the Treaty.

Further Friction: The Navalny Incident

The poisoning of Alexey Navalny with a Novichok agent in Russia in late August added another irritant to the OPCW’s agenda. The organisation got involved after Germany requested technical assistance from The Hague. Moscow has denied any wrongdoing, offering conflicting hypotheses as to how and where Navalny got exposed to the toxic substance, initially accused the OPCW Technical Secretariat of exceeding its authority in getting involved, and even complained about the OPCW deceiving Moscow regarding that technical assistance query. Later, Russia turned to the body itself to request technical assistance on its part. Russian experts, speaking to the author on condition of anonymity, fundamentally doubt that the Navalny incident should have been made a case under the CWC – which was intended as a treaty on disarmament and the non-use of a certain class of weapons in armed conflict – in the first place.

Meanwhile, the European Union issued sanctions against a number of Russian individuals and institutions over the proliferation and use of CW, reacting to what some have called Merkel’s own “red line crisis” – comparing the German Chancellor’s predicament to the moment of truth President Obama faced after the August 2013 Eastern Ghouta CW attack. As of mid-November, Russia was in ongoing contact with the OPCW to coordinate and agree on the modus operandi of OPCW technical assistance activity in Russia.

Managing the Syrian and Navalny Dossiers at the Conference of States Parties

As states parties hold their annual conference facing these challenges, it is essential that they continue to press compliance with the CWC, using the rules and procedures of the Treaty judiciously. If states parties feel that the Treaty – which by now has almost universal membership – no longer serves the fundamental purposes of preventing CW use and proliferation, they are right to become wary of regime maintenance for the sake of it. That said, Russia associates a past legacy of mostly successful international cooperation with the OPCW, which it values will want to continue to shape from within. This perception affords member states an opportunity – albeit modest, given broader frictions with Russia – to engage Moscow, in an effort to forestall further fragmentation of the CW regime. Such an effort will require a give-and-take on all sides.

Starting with the Syrian dossier, Russia has previously proven that it has the leverage to elicit cooperation by the Assad government. Even if Moscow calculates that it cannot engage on decisions resulting from the OPCW Executive Council’s July report, it could urge Damascus to work more seriously with the DAT, which would afford the OPCW an opportunity to clarify questions on Syria’s declarations outside the scope of the July 9 decision. Since the DAT was established in agreement with the Syrian authorities, this should be an acceptable route for Russia – but it has to be taken in earnest, not just to humour the OPCW. While some member states have viewed Syria as being non-compliant with the Treaty given its failure to provide complete and accurate declarations to date, Russia and others have argued that compliance is a process, in which changes in and additions to a state’s initial declarations take time and are routine practice. After 23 rounds of consultations between the DAT and the Syrian government, however, Syria arguably needs to deliver, rather than engage in further stalling. Unfortunately, Russia’s national statement submitted for the CSP general debate, which calls on other states to muster the “political will” to remove “in-limbo” issues confronted by the DAT from the agenda with Syria, does not give much cause for optimism.

Regarding the Navalny affair, it will be critical how the CSP chooses to tackle accusations of Russian non-compliance with the CWC. An activation of the Treaty mechanisms to elicit a formal decision on such non-compliance is not a sine qua non. Indeed, following the poisoning of Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in early 2018, the United Kingdom decided to elicit technical assistance from the OPCW, but held off on pushing for a formal decision on Russian non-compliance with the CWC. Today, states parties (in this instance likely Germany, though possibly another state) could similarly decide that formally tabling the question of Russian non-compliance with the Treaty in the Executive Council will not be politically expedient, but that other Treaty provisions could afford opportunities for mitigating concerns about Russian compliance. US Assistant Secretary Chris Ford’s recent remarks on the CSP, in which he contented himself calling on states parties to “protest Mr. Navalny’s poisoning and call out Russia’s blatant violation of the CWC in CSP national statements,” suggests that Washington, too, does not intend to escalate the matter in The Hague through an Executive Council vote.

Concretely, Russia should engage in the widely-requested internal investigation into the Navalny incident, involving (or at a minimum closely informing) the OPCW. Indeed, under Article VII of the CWC, any State Party is required to implement the Treaty domestically, including by adopting laws that prohibit the undertaking of activity prohibited by the Convention. Such a Russian effort could build on the recent Russian technical assistance request, the details of which remain subject to negotiation. The European Union, for its part, should communicate to Moscow its readiness for partial or full lifting of its Navalny-related sanctions in response to Russian steps – ie a transparent investigation into the incident in collaboration with the Technical Secretariat.

It is possible, including for political reasons well beyond the CW dossier, that Moscow will refuse to engage on constructive proposals along the lines outlined above, which would raise further doubts about the value it accords to the global CW regime. But other states parties should test Moscow. They should exhaust all possibilities afforded by the Treaty to elicit Russia’s return to greater cooperation and compliance, because the OPCW remains the vital platform for all states to jointly clarify, verify and consult for the long-term prevention of chemical warfare. Its accumulation of relevant information, analysis and expertise is unparalleled and will play a decisive role in buttressing the norm against CW use and proliferation in the future.

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