Don’t Kick Russia Out of the Chemical Weapons Convention Over Navalny

Doing so would be a death sentence for global nonproliferation efforts.

The headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is located in The Hague on April 4, 2018.
The headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is located in The Hague on April 4, 2018. BART MAAT/AFP via Getty Images

Ahead of this week’s conference of all 193 state parties to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), pleas for tougher action against Moscow over the August 2020 poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny have grown louder. A recent piece published by Foreign Policy calls for a 90-day ultimatum to Moscow to come clean over the Novichok poisoning or else face suspension from the OPCW—reminiscent of a similar deadline the organization set for Syria last summer. Others have echoed such sentiments, calling for inspections of Russian facilities suspected to be part of the country’s alleged chemical weapons program.

Proposals for tightening the screws on Moscow come against the backdrop of serious friction between Russia and the West—fueled in part by Navalny’s poisoning. U.S. President Joe Biden recently agreed with characterizations of his Russian counterpart as a “killer,” leading Moscow to recall its ambassador in Washington. Over the weekend, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan warned the Russian government “there will be consequences” if Navalny—whose health is rapidly deteriorating—dies in prison. At the OPCW in The Hague, meanwhile, the Navalny case has compounded long-standing grievances against Russia, particularly over its support of the Syrian regime and the 2018 poisoning of former intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom.

Proponents of punishing Moscow are concerned about the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) turning into a paper tiger if it can be violated without consequence. The recent Foreign Policy piece even muses that Russia—and its ally Syria—turning their backs on the OPCW could be “a good thing.” But state parties are well advised to avoid a full break with Moscow. The long-term viability of the global chemical weapons regime—which aims to mitigate, if not eradicate, chemical warfare—is dependent on Russia maintaining a stake therein.

There is certainly good reason for The Hague to be frustrated with Russia. Moscow has shielded Syria for years—which might face procedural sanctions at this week’s conference—from efforts to restore compliance with the convention. Russian diplomats have attacked the work of the OPCW’s ongoing Fact-Finding Mission and now dysfunctional Joint Investigative Mechanism on Syria and have questioned the OPCW’s legal mandate to install an investigative mechanism that names those responsible for chemical weapons used in the Syrian conflict.

The Russian government has also protected the Bashar al-Assad regime against accusations of insufficient cooperation with the OPCW’s Declaration Assessment Team, claiming the organization holds Damascus to higher standards than other disarming states. Just last week, Moscow’s campaign against the OPCW was on full display at the third United Nations Security Council Arria-formula meeting on chemical weapons use in Syria, which was convened by Russia to lobby against its ally’s looming suspension at this week’s OPCW conference. But Syria had ample chance to settle outstanding queries about its declarations to the OPCW. It chose not to knowing Russia was on its side.

Calls on the Kremlin to come clean over Navalny are politically problematic in that they boil down to asking Moscow to publicly admit it has lied all along.

The OPCW has also faced an uphill battle in dealing with Russia over the Navalny dossier. Moscow argues allegations about the alleged poisoning should never have been “multilateralized” at the OPCW because Russia dismantled its chemical weapons stockpile under OPCW supervision in 2017.

Amid assertions of chemical weapons use on Russian territory, Moscow claims it is up to its domestic authorities to probe the poisoning in line with the CWC’s Article VII. Article VII foresees no investigative role for the OPCW’s Technical Secretariat, to which Germany—where Navalny underwent treatment—turned with a request for technical assistance, so Russia’s reasoning goes. Moscow further posits its domestic probe cannot proceed while Germany and the OPCW hold back the results of their own Novichok analyses, though U.N. Special Rapporteurs Agnès Callamard and Irene Khan recently provided legal argumentation to the contrary. Amid such legal jugglery, a painstaking back-and-forth on dispatching an OPCW Technical Assistance Mission to Russia to investigate the Navalny incident reached an impasse in December 2020, when Moscow refused to allow the OPCW to work independently from Russian experts.

Given Moscow’s lack of cooperation with the OPCW, state parties at this week’s conference will likely continue to call on Russia to probe the Navalny incident at home. Going further, and formally investigating Russia as noncompliant with the CWC—the prerogative of the organization’s 41-member policymaking body, the Executive Council—would require probing facilities and activities inside Russia. It is highly unlikely that Moscow would consent to such action, but the CWC framework also affords state parties other options. These include a two-thirds majority in the Executive Council to set an ultimatum for Russia to “redress” this situation of compliance concern—the proposal espoused in the recent Foreign Policy piece—or individual states taking the unprecedented step of initiating a challenge inspection in Russia themselves.

Going down one of the latter two paths—issuing ultimatums or threatening challenge inspections—would face certain resistance from Russia. Calls on the Kremlin to come clean over the Navalny affair are politically problematic in that they boil down to asking Moscow to publicly admit it has lied all along—not just about the Navalny incident but about its own chemical disarmament effort too. Given the frosty state of relations between Russia and the West, the Kremlin will surely judge the political costs of confessing a CWC violation to be far higher than those to be incurred for facing a formal charge at the OPCW. And, because Russia considers its centrality to multilateral arms control regimes a source of considerable prestige, the country would likely leave the OPCW outright before it endures a looming suspension. If the final intention of an ultimatum, then, is to force a total rupture with Moscow at the OPCW, proponents of such an approach might well get what they wish for.

Russia’s participation is of critical importance to the future viability of the CWC and other arms control regimes, so courses of action sure to provoke rupture should not be advocated lightly. Moscow holds a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and has strong ties with nonproliferation-averse actors like China, Iran, and Syria. Considering the mix of challenges, both old and new, facing the CWC regime going forward—such as weapons acquisition trends and emerging chemical agents—state parties should keep the door open for a rapprochement with Moscow. This is not pie in the sky: Despite recent challenges, Russia has a positive legacy of past cooperation with the OPCW.

Sanctions advocates all too often assume a straight line between banishment and behavioral change.

Such a detente should be desirable for Western countries, especially because it would neither foreclose efforts to hold Syria accountable for its noncompliance with the CWC nor prevent states from voicing their frustration over Russia’s stalled Navalny investigation. Clearly, concerns over Moscow secretly operating a Novichok program must be addressed if lasting damage to the CWC is to be averted. Yet the diplomatic choreography of verifying Russian activities need not entail public shaming of the Kremlin. Instead, a verification mission could, for example, be conducted confidentially through member states of the U.N. Security Council as long as the results provided to the OPCW can be authenticated.

Inviting Russia to address compliance concerns through creative diplomacy and the CWC’s routine consultation provisions—instead of loudly threatening suspension—will unlikely resolve tensions at the OPCW anytime soon. But simply shunning Russia will not serve this end either. Sanctions advocates all too often assume a straight line between banishment and behavioral change, insinuating a further isolated Russia will reverse course. Recent history suggests otherwise.

Fundamentally, the West faces a choice between a difficult Russia with which the West maintains channels of dialogue at the OPCW (and, by extension, over which it exerts some influence) versus a difficult Russia whose decoupling from Western counterparts proceeds unabated. Stopping short of pushing Russia out of the OPCW over the Navalny dossier ensures there will be something left to build on at the organization—once the West’s broader relationship with Russia permits a return to more constructive engagement in The Hague. The OPCW remains a vital platform working toward the long-term prevention of chemical warfare. To be successful, it will need Russia in, not out.

Hanna Notte is a senior nonresident scholar with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Twitter: @HannaNotte