Russia’s Poisonous Message to the World

Russia’s Poisonous Message to the World

Henry Nicholls/Reuters

The circumstances surrounding the attack on a former Russian spy in England leave little doubt that Russia was the culprit and cast a lengthening shadow over the global regime to stop chemical weapons.

March 23, 2018 12:00 pm (EST)

Henry Nicholls/Reuters
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

The March 4 poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei V. Skripal with a powerful nerve agent has triggered alarm among UK authorities and escalated tensions with Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia. It also poses a serious threat to the global effort to contain and eradicate chemical weapons, says CFR’s Lori Esposito Murray, a disarmament expert who advised the White House on the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), in a written interview.

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Murray says that Russia, a signatory to the convention, is now leading efforts to undermine it. “As Putin becomes more and more emboldened, the world becomes more and more dangerous,” she says. “Without U.S. leadership, the global nonproliferation regime is threatened with collapse.”

What do we know so far about the attack?

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Former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, remain comatose three weeks after they were found unconscious on a park bench. British authorities say they have symptoms of nerve agent poisoning. The first police officer on the scene, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, was hospitalized for more than two weeks. Forty-six people have been seen by hospital medical staff in the aftermath of the attack. Investigators have identified more than 130 people potentially exposed to the nerve agent, and traces of it have been found at the pub and restaurant the Skripals visited.

Prime Minister Theresa May informed the House of Commons that the Skripals were poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia and identified as part of a group known as Novichok. May shared that the British government concluded that it is highly likely that Russia is responsible for the act. The main focus of the UK investigation, which is being treated as an attempted murder, is how the poison was administered.

What is Novichok?

The development of Novichok, which means “newcomer” in Russian, was revealed in two articles, in 1991 and 1992, by Dr. Vil Mirzayanov, who until January 1992 held the position of senior lead scientific researcher at the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology, the main developer of chemical weapons in Russia. Mirzayanov, who was subsequently jailed for his revelations, disclosed that work on the development of new chemical weapons intensified during the perestroika period as the Soviet Union was negotiating arms control constraints, which eventually resulted in the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.

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Novichok is considered to be ten times more lethal than VX, the agent reportedly used in the assassination of Kim Jung-un’s brother in Malaysia, and that requires only milligrams to produce death. Similar to VX and other nerve agents, exposure is either by inhalation or through the skin. Novichok agents can be administered as liquids or in powder form.

Since the UK and Russia are both parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and any use of a chemical weapon by a state party is a violation of the CWC and a breach of international law, Britain asked the implementing body of the CWC, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), to verify independently the samples of nerve agent used in the attack. The OPCW arrived this past Monday to begin work, which could last about two weeks.

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Why is Russia the prime suspect?

Russia quickly became the prime suspect based on several factors:

  • Russia produced this agent starting in the 1970s and would still be capable of doing so.
  • Manufacturing this agent requires the highest-grade laboratories and expertise.
  • Russia has a recent record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations.
  • The British government has assessed that Russia views some defectors as targets of assassinations and has a publicly avowed motive for trying to kill Skripal.

In a joint statement last week, the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, and the United States said they shared the view that “there is no plausible alternative explanation” for the attack.

Russia, in a series of contradictory and confusing statements, has denied responsibility, refused to answer the UK call for an explanation, asked for samples of the agent and access to the Skripals, which the UK has denied, and refused to recognize the findings of the CWC implementing body’s investigation, which the UK had requested.

How many governments have these weapons, and why do they develop them?

Of the 192 state parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, eight countries declared chemical weapons stockpiles, and all of those have eliminated their declared stockpiles, except the United States, which is scheduled to complete the destruction of its chemical weapons by 2023.

Syria, however, may not have declared its entire stockpile. With the Salisbury attack, concerns have deepened about whether Russia has declared and destroyed its chemical weapons stockpile, as it announced in 2017. The countries that are not parties to the CWC include Israel, which has signed the convention but has not ratified it; South Sudan, which announced its intention to join the convention last December; and North Korea and Egypt, which have neither signed nor ratified the accord.

Since the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997, 96 percent of the world’s declared stockpile of 72,304 metric tons of chemical agent have been destroyed, a historic achievement. Upon joining the CWC, Russia’s declaration included a stockpile of almost forty thousand metric tons, which as of last year has been eliminated. The U.S. declared a stockpile of almost twenty-eight thousand tons, which will be eliminated by 2023.

The large-scale horror of chemical warfare in World War I prompted an international effort to control these weapons and led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use of these weapons in war. Nevertheless, many countries spent considerable resources researching and developing these weapons. The proliferation of CW was also spurred by the dawn of the nuclear era, with those countries that did not have nuclear weapons viewing chemical weapons as the easier and cheaper alternative.

Is the chemical weapons nonproliferation regime under threat?

Yes, and Russia is at the epicenter of the effort to undermine the regime and its centerpiece, the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. This is an important element of Russia’s overall efforts to undermine the international order with irresponsible and illegal behavior.

In Syria, Russia has been both protecting and supporting the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in the civil war. Following the U.S. cruise missile attack on the Shayrat air base in response to Syria’s deadly use of chemical weapons in 2017, Russia has pursued an even more determined response to undermine the CWC. In the UN Security Council, Russia has repeatedly blocked action against Syria, including blocking the reauthorization of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), the investigative arm for chemical weapons use in Syria, whose purpose is to identify those responsible.

Russia’s response, that it will not accept the findings of the OPCW investigation into the Salisbury attack, further threatens the viability of the CWC regime.

What should be the next step for UK and international authorities?

Going forward, the UK needs to further rally the international response and avoid a tit-for-tat bilateral response with Russia, which could only serve Russia’s purposes by isolating the UK.

The Chemical Weapons Convention, with its 192 state parties, provides the UK important leverage and procedures to isolate Russia for its destabilizing and dangerous behavior and provides the basis for seeking broader, internationally coordinated responses to the attack, including sanctions, actions against Russian diplomats globally, and targeting Russian money that has been corruptly and illegally obtained.

How important is the U.S. response to this incident?

As U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley stated at the UN Security Council meeting on the issue, this is a “defining moment” for the credibility of the council. It is also a defining moment for NATO and for Europe, which needs to put aside the fallout from Brexit.

But, most importantly, it is a defining moment for U.S. leadership. There is much at stake. The U.S. has been the driving force for international controls on the spread of weapons of mass destruction. U.S. leadership brought the Chemical Weapons Convention negotiations to fruition. Similarly, U.S. leadership has been vital in establishing and enforcing the nuclear nonproliferation regime—controlling the spread of ballistic missile technology, launching global efforts on securing nuclear weapons and material, and achieving the over 80 percent reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear systems since the end of the Cold War.

The attacks in Salisbury are Russia’s latest attack on the global nonproliferation regime, not its first. As Putin becomes more and more emboldened, the world becomes more and more dangerous. Without U.S. leadership, the global nonproliferation regime is threatened with collapse.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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