The Russian CBRNe Threat


After the Russian occupation of Crimea, questions have been raised about means Russia will likely deploy to reinforce its foreign policy objectives. Further escalation in Eastern Ukraine may very well lead to a situation where both parties deploy “all necessary means”. This special issue of the NCT/CBNW Newsletter addresses the issue of Russian CBRN capabilities and what defenses the West has against such a threat. Dave Sloggett addresses the Russian capabilities, with a focus on the “known-unknowns” of the secret Russian Chemical Weapon Programs. Over the years, defectors and whistleblowers have shed some light on these programs, but hard evidence of the existence and exact contents of these programs are limited. One of the few instances when we could see evidence of such a Russian weapon program is the Moscow Theatre Siege in 2002 which is covered by Patrick Kozakiewicz’ article.
The Western side of the equation is briefly covered in this article. Although a proper examination of Western preparedness for a CBRN scenario would be useful, we have asked European industry and researchers for their opinion on the preparedness of NATO and the EU.

CBRN Countermeasures

Is the west prepared for the worst? Of course, this question raises more than a few eyebrows. A Russian CBRN attack is largely considered highly unlikely. “Why and for what reason would Russia do that within the current geo-political situation?” is the answer relayed by many CBRN experts. In any case, NATO and the EU have sufficient countermeasures to counter CBRN attacks on the military side in an operational environment. Many companies offer equipment that provides perfect protection against all classical Chemical and Biological warfare agents. However, some concerns are raised about the unprotected civilian population during CBRN attacks.
According to Dr Nobert Kloepper from Bruker Daltonics, the West is sufficiently prepared against a CBRN attack from Russia. From the “Cold War scenarios” to more recent investment in civil and industrial emergency preparedness, the West has built up sufficient capability to encounter the average threat Russia can pose. He emphasis on the fact that already more than 80% of Russia’s chemical weapons stockpile has been destroyed under the auspices of the OPCW. With the remaining arsenal, Russia can only cause “terrorist turmoil” for which the West is prepared.
However, not everyone is that optimistic about Western CBRN preparedness. A senior spokesperson from one of the western defense research institutes, who insisted on anonymity, stated that: “NATO is not prepared at all. Although, the official answer is of course that NATO is sufficiently prepared.”


A specific concern has to do with the Novichoks; these are agents that were designed by the Russians with the specific goal to be undetectable using standard NATO chemical detection equipment; and to defeat NATO chemical protective gear, whilst being safer to handle. Although, it was claimed that these criteria were met, this has not been proven to date. In addition, it’s widely believed that the Russians halted these research activities before the end of the Cold War. However, the spokesperson stated that: “to date there are clear signs that Russia is still developing new chemical and biological agents.”
Others argue that the threat of Novichoks is to be neglected. According to Norbert Kloepper, Novichoks, should not be considered as that novel. At least for all agents that are known to the West, there is detection equipment available.

NATO Standards

Although the threat allegedly stemming from Russian R&D is debatable, Bruno David from NBC Sys raises another issue in connection with Novichoks. If these agents are really undetectable using standard NATO chemical detection equipment, one should ask the questions if these standards, implemented to guarantee a certain level of protection, now actually serve as a limitation. Industry does not take the lead in developing equipment that offers more than is required at an international level and industry will not facilitate in the protection against speculative threats. NATO sets the standard and it’s only when the standards prove to be insufficient to protect against a realistic threat level that the latter should be changed and in turn the industry can develop new solutions.
This raises further questions about the ability of standards to safeguard against current potential threats. Indeed, while standards have had and have their purpose, they should not be carved in stone and evolve according to the changing threat spectrum. Consequently, both the EU and NATO should put much emphasis on adapting standards to ongoing and future potential threats. By providing up to date equipment and training requirements, evolving standards would hence enable to adapt to current threats and provide increased levels of security and preparedness. For example, by constantly updating agents’ lists and thresholds, NATO and EU members could procure relevant detection and decontamination equipment enabling them to be better prepared against current potential CBRN attacks.

Civil Defense

When it comes to civil defense, the EU seems to be divided. Some of the larger countries, like France and Germany, have built up a significant civil defense capability against CBRNe threats. However, that is not always the case for smaller countries in the EU. Spending budget on a “one-in-a-trillion” threat is difficult to justify in times of austerity. While the EU CBRN Action Plan has enabled to strengthen CBRNe preparedness and response in the EU, many concrete measures have yet to be taken. Indeed, in its last CBRN report, the European Parliament emphasizes on the necessity to further implement the various CBRN actions in order to meet the objectives spelled out in the EU’s CBRN Action Plan.
CBRN is one of those examples where it is difficult for individual EU Member States, especially small ones, to justify building a full capacity, but where the EU would be able to build such a shared capacity against lower costs per capita. Much as deeper EU integration in field of CBRN preparedness and response would increase EU Member States CBRN security as a whole at a marginally low cost, these same Member States remain reluctant to let go of matters that have to do with their own national security. In so doing, overall CBRN preparedness and response is not cost effective and EU citizens’ security varies tremendously from one member to the next.

Enhancing CBRN Preparedness

In general, it seems that the west does have sufficient military countermeasures in place in case of a CBRN attack from Russia. The real problem lies with Russia’s unpredictability with regards to its foreign policies in general and its current and future offensive CBRN capabilities.
According to another industry spokesperson, who also wishes to remain anonymous, western industry has the know-how to develop the right CBRN countermeasures, but as the Russian threat is not clearly defined, there will always be a gap in western CBRN defense. Therefore, in order for the West to be fully prepared, the importance of intelligence gathering should not be underestimated. So long as the exact state-of-the-art the Russian CBRN capabilities remains unknown to the West, it will be impossible to honestly state that the West is prepared against a Russian CBRN threat.


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