Putin Has a Chemical Weapons Problem

The use of a nerve agent against an ex-spy in the U.K. will haunt the Kremlin worse than previous transgressions.

A time for action.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin has shrugged off criticism over his annexation of Crimea, sanctions over his meddling in Ukraine, and attacks over Russian interference in the U.S. elections. It will be much harder to shrug off international outrage over the use of a chemical agent in a NATO ally.

No matter what they say officially, neither U.S. nor European officials are particularly bothered about Ukraine, a poor, corrupt country on the Soviet periphery that the West isn't bound by any treaties to defend. So sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine and fomenting unrest there have been weak. It also has been hard for the U.S. to get European cooperation for any retaliatory measures tied to the election meddling issue. The use of chemical weapons is a different story. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans them, has 192 signatory states, one fewer than the United Nations Charter; it's one of the most universally approved international documents in history. Breaking it can entail far more serious sanctions than those Russia has faced for its earlier attempts to assert itself globally.

After former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned, apparently with a Russian-developed nerve agent known as Novichok, in Salisbury earlier this month, Moscow has failed to engage meaningfully with the U.K. to clarify the incident. Of course, the U.K. government baited the Kremlin, demanding an answer within 24 hours; Prime Minister Theresa May and her ministers must have known they'd only get an angry rebuke this way. But it's also clear that Russia doesn't have a good response. 

In a speech to the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday, Russian ambassador Vasily Nebenzya laid out what he had. There was the usual verbiage about the presumption of innocence and a weird Sherlock Holmes reference that, judging by the British representative's puzzled face, didn't really work. But Nebenzya's arguments also included the following substantive points:

  • "The Russian Federation has not conducted any scientific studies or research and development under the code name Novichok"; 
  • The U.K. hasn't made a formal request for information under Article 9 of the Chemical Weapons Convention, nor has it provided "material proof" of Russian involvement, such as samples of the substance used against Skripal;
  • Russia has "nothing to fear or hide" from an independent investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
  • In 1992, Russia stopped all Soviet chemical weapons programs, and by 2017, the remaining stocks were fully destroyed.
  • Since the early 1990s, some Russian scientists involved in the chemical weapons program moved to the West and continued their work in the U.S. and the U.K. Their output is, "for some reason," classified in the West as "Novichok."
  • There's no way to identify a toxic substance unless one has its formula. If the U.K. has identified the nerve agent used against Skripal, it must have its formula and be capable of manufacturing it.
  • The attempted murder of Skripal would have been of no benefit to the Russian government ahead of the March 18 presidential election and the upcoming soccer World Cup.

That's a weak defense for several reasons. One is that Nebenzya's Novichock statement is carefully formulated to deny what the U.K. isn't claiming.

In 1992, Vil Mirzayanov, a chemist who had worked on the Soviet chemical weapons program since the 1960s, disclosed that Novichok agents, also known as A-230 and a A-232, were produced under a program called Foliant. During Mirzayanov's 1992-1994 Russian trial, the research institute where he had worked reported that work on the substances, described by the whistleblower as nerve agents more powerful than the U.S.-developed VX, had been sanctioned by several 1980s resolutions of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee. So was the development of binary weapons which produced the poisonous compounds through a reaction between seemingly innocuous substances.

It was the Soviet Union, not the Russian Federation, that conducted the research and development, and the program was known as Foliant, not Novichok (that name was used just for the compounds themselves). But that doesn't eliminate the possibility of Russia's maintaining both stocks and production of the chemicals.

Nebenzya's demands that the incident be handled under the CWC and by the OPCW are another reason his argument doesn't hold water. Russia, of course, has positive experience with the OPCW in Syria, where the U.S. says President Bashar al-Assad's troops are using chemical weapons and Russia insists they aren't. The OPCW has thoroughly investigated a number of incidents but has been reluctant to apportion blame. But in the Skripal case, both the U.K. and Russia are in a position to know the OPCW is likely to draw a blank. As Mirzayanov wrote in his book, "State Secrets":

Despite my revelations and the ratification of the CWC by Russia, the Novichok program was not put under international control, and agents A-230, A-232 and their precursors and the binary components are not on the list of controlled compounds of CWC. This is very troubling because there are no guarantees that Russia isn't continuing such secret programs. There are extremely compelling reasons for amending the CWC to include these chemicals, but nothing has been done about it.

On Wednesday, Vladimir Uyba, head of Russia's Federal Medico-Biological Agency, confirmed this, saying Novichok was not covered by the CWC. No Russian government official has said clearly that Russia doesn't have stocks of Novichok or that it doesn't produce it.

Of course, if keeping or producing these agents is not banned by the convention, Russia formally has, as Nebenzya said, "nothing to fear or hide." But it's not certain that the international community -- not just Western nations but a broader set of UN members -- will want to stand on formality and not on the spirit of the convention, whose purpose was to ban all chemical weapons of mass destruction. In a strong statement on Thursday, condemning "the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War II," the leaders of the U.K., Germany, France and the U.S. called on Russia to declare the Novichok program to the OPCW.

That leaves the final part of Nebenzya's argument -- that Western nations likely had the capacity to produce the chemical used on Skripal and that Russia had nothing to gain by using it. I find it hard to support. Hits on people the Russian intelligence services consider traitors -- such as Skripal or Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned with polonium in the U.K. in 2006 -- are meant to deliver the message that traitors aren't safe anywhere. Such decisive action could only help Putin in the presidential election: His core electorate supports such shows of strength and wile. But the election isn't free or fair, anyway, so there's no reason to bring it into the conversation. As for the World Cup, it's too late to do anything about it, and the U.K. has made no move to withdraw its team. 

The U.K. is certainly not interested in using a nerve agent on its own soil just to spite Russia; even if one cynically considers it a distraction from May's Brexit problems, it can't last long enough to be of any real benefit to the prime minister.

The Skripal case will not go away easily, and it'll probably haunt the Kremlin worse than any of its previous transgressions. The West won't, of course, wage an Iraq-style war on it, but harsher sanctions, including some from Europe, are suddenly a revived possibility.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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