Dr Dave Sloggett examines the case that Russia is being less than candid about the state of its chemical weapons programme
The Russian military intervention in Crimea has fundamentally altered the European security landscape. Few can doubt that President Putin is simply a Russian leader keen on flexing his muscles in photo-opportunities. Where Russian people are seen to be at risk, President Putin will cast aside international norms and act to ensure their protection irrespective of the damaging effects such actions have on the delicate state of international relations.
His actions in Crimea should not have been a surprise to the west. The Russian’s have a track record when their vital interests are seen to be at stake. In Estonia in 2007 a series of unclaimed cyber-attacks took place against the banking system that were clearly sourced inside Russia. A year later he embarked upon the South Ossetian War. In between he has not been shy about applying the economic weapon of energy supplies into Western Europe as another instrument of his increasing position of power in the region. All these actions and the recent intervention in Crimea show that after what many Russians perceived as the humiliation of the end of the Cold War, President Putin is slowly re-establishing Russia as a super-power on the world stage.
The question for western leaders is what to do about this situation. The threats of economic sanctions and restrictions on the movement of key people in the Russian leadership are unlikely to cut much ice with President Putin. In fact he will revel in this kind of tepid response from the west.
Indeed the robust response by the Kremlin to these criticisms has been to hint of a withdrawal from established arms control treaties with the obvious sub-text of the threat of the start of a new Cold War. It is not difficult to suggest that President Putin’s calculus is that the west is in no position to embark upon another round of military spending and will shy away from anything that could lead it back into having to increase its investment in defence spending.
If economic and political sanctions against Russia are likely to have little impact, what other courses of action does the west have to reign in the Russian leadership? If President Putin is set on a course to re-create the Cold War under circumstances where he believes he has the upper hand what concrete measures should the west now be taking in terms of assessing its military position vis-à-vis the potential threat from Russia?
One would be to undertake a clear-headed and in-depth review of the capabilities of the current and near-term Russian military capability. One of the most compelling questions that should be asked in this review is what exactly are the Russians doing about their chemical weapons? Most notably its long-term advanced chemical weapons programme. This has long been an area in which the Russians have been less than transparent and is an on-going area of concern.
As Syria embarks upon its programme of chemical weapons destruction under the pressure of Moscow, the great irony is that Russia’s own efforts to dismantle its own extensive investment in chemical weapons has almost slowed to a crawl. In light of changing circumstances it is important to ask the following questions. Should Russia be doing more to rid itself of its massive stockpile of chemical weapons? And are the delays in Russia’s chemical programme the result of a deliberate obfuscation by the Kremlin to enable it to retain its capability at a time when the international security landscape is arguably at its most uncertain state.
In 1997 having ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) Russia’s then leadership declared a chemical weapons stockpile of 39,967 tons. This total comprised blister and nerve agents such as Lewisite, sarin, soman and VX. Despite the scale of the Russian chemical weapon arsenal many in the west believed that there were also elements that had not been fully declared, such as the Novichok agents that had been developed in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Novichok agents were amongst the most deadly nerve agents ever assembled. They were reportedly five to eight times more potent than the deadly VX. It was also claimed that these agents were easier to handle because their precursors were less hazardous when stored separately. This also had the effect of increasing the shelf-life of the agents. All-in-all if the reports are to be believed these agents represent a very different generation of chemical warfare capability that are based on substances that are not defined as being illegal under the current CWC.
This then, in part, may explain why the Russians believed that these substances were indeed not covered by the CWC and hence need not be declared once the treaty was ratified. Whilst that may be an explanation of the situation it also produces worrying indications that the Russians may be abiding by the letter of the CWC and not its overall spirit. This is also an approach they have used in the past, such as in the declarations relating to the Conventional Forces Europe (CFE) Treaty. Due to these concerns there is an urgent need to re-open the discussions on the chemicals covered by the CWC as part of an ongoing process to preserve to purpose of the CWC.
Whilst such assessments of the deadly effects of the Novichok agents may prove to be an exaggeration their capabilities have been debated in far too many publications for their existence to be questioned. As the political atmosphere changed in the 1990s one leading Russian chemist, Vil Mirzayanov went public on the development of the Novichok agents. According to his account these new developments were part of a fourth generation chemical weapons development undertaken as part of the Soviet ‘Foliant’ programme. In 1992 he was briefly imprisoned accused of revealing state secrets. In his trial the existence of the Novichok agents was tacitly admitted by the authorities. Since then a wall of silence has descended on the Novichok programme.
The troubling part about the history of the Novichok agents was that they were specifically designed to remain undetectable by NATO’s standard chemical detection equipment whilst also being able to defeat established chemical weapons protective equipment. Arguably these are the crown jewels in the Russian chemical armoury and not something that President Putin may wish to give up readily especially when the western powers are threatening him with a range of political and economic sanctions.
It is interesting to note that up until the arrival of President Putin in the Kremlin, the Russia had tried to stick to its treaty obligations. Ever since President Putin took the Presidency’s office that process has gradually slowed down. By the end of October 2011 Russia had only destroyed 57% of its declared stockpile. That left it with over 17,000 tons of highly toxic substances in its arsenal. Repeatedly quoting excuses over the difficulties it was experiencing for such materials’ disposal, Russia has successfully extended the time it has to meet with its treaty obligations.
These reasons may be entirely valid. To be fair even the Americans have failed to meet their treaty obligations as far as the CWC are concerned. Given the understanding of how difficult it can be to dispose of certain substances without creating yet more harmful side effects, the international community has also appeared to be rather tolerant in the Syrian case because chemical weapons disposal was taking place within the context of a civil war.
But there is a fine line between being understanding and being deliberately deceived. As the international security situation over the Russian military intervention in Syria continues to develop, western leaders need to be mindful of the wider implications for the international security landscape. If, as seems eminently plausible, President Putin has set a deliberate course towards creating the conditions for a new Cold War, western political leaders need to reconsider their approach to international arms treaties, such as the CWC. It would appear that President Ronald Reagan’s use in 1986 of the Russian proverb “doveryai no proveryai” (trust but verify) still applies.