Moscow Theater Crisis: Unknown Chemical Agent Revisited


The Moscow theater hostage crisis remains a spectacular event, which sparked a wide domestic and international debate concerning the appropriateness of the Russian CBRNe response and whether it violated International law or the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Stories and hearsay about Russia’s secret weapons program have always griped faintly in the background, but finding proof was almost impossible until this hostage crisis and the use of an unknown chemical agent roared around the world.

As it comes to such matters, most available accounts of the hostage crisis differ significantly in their description of nearly every aspect of the incident. This fact proves that finding out whether the Russian response was suitable is difficult. Blurriness of the whole situation is further complicated by the media’s self-censorship and by the fact that even eyewitness accounts are often contradictory.

The Russian’s are known for their brute force and swift action. The Moscow theater hostage crisis is a perfect example of this and of how chemical weapons could be used to effectively end a hostage situation. While the siege ultimately ended in tragedy and still provokes recriminations, could the loss of lives have been prevented if the Russian authorities had been more thorough in their rescue operation?

On 23 October 2002 at 21:00 hours, a white minibus carrying a group of 53 armed men and women, who claimed allegiance to the Islamist militant separatist movement in Chechnya, arrived at the Dubrovka Theater on Melnikova Street in Moscow. Within 30 minutes, the armed group had entered the theater during the performance of the popular “Nord-Ost” musical, swiftly taking 979 people hostage. The armed group came loaded with heavy weapons, grenades, improvised explosives and a promise that they were not afraid to die. The terrorists threatened to blow up the building and kill everyone inside unless Russia ended the war in Chechnya.

It would prove to be a 58-hour ordeal that ultimately ended with a controversial rescue operation.  On the third day of the hostage situation, at 5:30am, Russian security forces pumped the building with a chemical agent. After an hour time – for the gas to take its effect – they stormed the building through several entrances, including the basement and the roof.  The armed group was eliminated, not a single Russian soldier was killed and no hostages were caught in the cross fire. A true success story!

The Russian Alpha Team stated that, “this is our first successful operation for years”. However, as the day went on the hostage death toll rose and questions began to rise concerning this unknown new chemical agent.

A great deal of research, during the Cold War, was conducted by the United States and the former Soviet Union on chemical substances that would not necessarily kill, but would instead merely debilitate enemy personnel. During the highpoint of chemical warfare, a wide number of pharmacological substances were investigated for their potential as incapacitators, including depressants, hallucinogens (e.g., LSD), belladonna drugs (scopolamine, BZ), and opiate derivatives. The latter category refers to those drugs like morphine that fit receptors in the human brain and nervous system, as a key would fit a lock, releasing pain-killing endorphins and inducing a state of euphoria. Given the right amount, opium-based drugs can also induce sleep/unconsciousness.


Did the Russian authorities use such an agent?

The use of the chemical agent in the Moscow Theater was not revealed by the authorities until eight hours after the rescue operation. President Vladimir Putin and the Moscow chief public health doctor Andrey Seltsovskiy insisted that the gas could not have caused death, but the name and chemical formula remained a secret with them.

It was only after growing international pressure and a final hostage death toll of 128, that the Russian Health Minister Yuri Shevchenko identified it as a fentanyl derivative, an extremely powerful opioid. Later, Boris Grebenyuk, the All-Russia Disaster Relief Service chief, said the services used trimethyl phentanylum (3-methylfentanyl), a fentanyl analog that is about 1000 times more potent than morphine.

Even giving it to the Moscow authorities that they were faced with a fraught situation, an argument remains that the Russian operation was conducted with inadequate attention to the aftermath safety of innocent civilians. The gas clearly was too potent. But whether or not the use of the chemical agent gas breached the Chemical Weapons Convention is much more difficult to determine.

The conventions wording allows for the use of chemical agents for “law enforcement” purposes, as stated in Article II 9d. It can be interpreted from the context that such agents could be used for riot control situations. A riot control agent is defined in Article II, pt. 7 as “any chemical not listed in a Schedule, which can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time frame following termination of exposure.” This contrasts those chemical weapon agents that are clearly named in the conventions three Schedules, such as nerve or mustard gas.

Determining where fentanyl-derivatives fall in this spectrum of lethal vs. non-lethal agents is, therefore, of highest importance when evaluating whether the incident in question was in fact a violation of the convention. In the final analysis, because it is not listed in any of the Schedules and is characterized by the rapid onset and short duration of analgesia, fentanyl can be legally considered a riot control agent according to the definition set forth in the CWC.

Unfortunately, these shortfalls in the convention resulted in dead lives. While antidotes do exist to counteract the effects of fentanyl, they were not made available to the medical staff during or after the rescue operation.

“The gas didn’t kill people right away, and many people died because they weren’t properly tended to,” said lawyer Igor Trunov, who represented the Nord-Ost victims in court. “The doctors didn’t know the composition of the gas. To this day it is classified. There wasn’t enough of the antidote. The ambulances didn’t have access to the building, and the hospitals weren’t ready to accommodate so many ex-hostages.”

Public health services were not warned in advance; the hospitals were not prepared and doctors were not given the name of the chemical employed so they did not know how to treat the patients. Also, the police did not clear the nearby streets of parked vehicles, so ambulances arrived at the scene an hour-and-a-half after the start of the operation. Sleeping hostages were carried not by medics, but by policemen. The rescue operation outside the theater was a disaster.

While the Russian raid was meticulously planned, the rescue operation was not.  Had the Russian authorities informed, collaborated and asked for additional help, many lives could have probably been saved.



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