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Hold Russia accountable for latest chemical weapons attack

Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist who was poisoned with a rare nerve agent while traveling in Russia, has recovered sufficiently to do what he does best: demand accountability from Russian government officials who abuse their power to violate human rights and the rule of law.

Navalny used his first blog post since the attempt on his life to demand that the Russian government turn over a key piece of evidence: the clothing he was wearing on the day he was poisoned. Earlier this month, German, French, and Swedish laboratories confirmed that Navalny, who is now receiving medical treatment in Germany, had been poisoned with a nerve agent from the Novichok group, a family of chemical weapons developed by the Soviet Union. Moscow’s continued use of chemical weapons against Kremlin enemies underscores that the international community has yet to deter Russia’s repeated violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the 1993 treaty that bans chemical weapons.

To uphold long-standing international norms and laws against the use of chemical weapons, Washington and its allies should impose meaningful sanctions on Moscow.

Russia has repeatedly used poisoning as a method of silencing prominent dissident voices or “traitors” of the state. Navalny, who was barred from a presidential run against Vladimir Putin, alleged in 2019 that he was poisoned while imprisoned for participating in a protest.

Navalny fell seriously ill on Aug. 20 while on a domestic flight in Russia. After Navalny’s family and the spokesperson of his Anti-Corruption Foundation stated that they believed the Kremlin poisoned him and demanded his evacuation to another country for treatment, the Russian government acquiesced and allowed Navalny to be evacuated to Germany. Moscow denies any involvement in the incident.

The most recent chemical attack is particularly brazen due to its immediate attributability to the Kremlin. Moscow also used a Novichok agent in the 2018 poisoning of a Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in Salisbury, England. In addition to the Skripals, two police officers and two British civilians were exposed to Novichok. Tragically, one of the civilians, Dawn Sturgess, received a lethal dose of the poison.

In 2019, states party to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the 193-member body that administers the CWC, voted to add chemicals in the Novichok family to the treaty’s Schedule 1 list of substances that receive the most stringent controls. The amendment entered into force in June 2020, and states are required to declare stocks or production capabilities of such nerve agents by October 2020. As a CWC state party, Russia is required to declare and destroy any stocks of the chemical and the facilities used to produce them.

At the request of Berlin, the OPCW dispatched a team to the hospital where Navalny is being treated to collect biomedical samples that will be analyzed by independent laboratories certified by the OPCW. The chemical weapons watchdog could issue an initial report within weeks, perhaps in time for the OPCW’s next Executive Council meeting on Oct. 6.

At the upcoming Executive Council meeting, and at the OPCW Conference of States Parties later this year, member states should authorize the organization to investigate the Navalny incident and demand that Moscow verifiably dispose of its stock of Novichok agents and Novichok production capability.

While Russia does not wield a veto at the OPCW like it does in the UN Security Council, it can still cause problems. For example, since 2018, Russia has attempted to block the OPCW from investigating the UK attack, and from carrying out further investigations into client state Syria’s use of chemical weapons. In October 2018, Russian spies were caught trying to hack into the OPCW headquarters. Moscow will likely use whatever means it deems necessary to stymie an investigation into the Navalny poisoning.

If Russia stonewalls, a 41-member body called the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons (established in 2018 to hold the Syrian regime accountable for its use of chemical weapons) could develop new sanctions against Russia for its attacks. Washington and the European Union, members of the Partnership Against Impunity, are already considering sanctions against Moscow and should swiftly implement a set of harsh new economic penalties.

One key measure they can take is sanctioning any known Russian institutes or agencies that produce, store, or employ Novichok agents. They can also enact penalties, such as asset freezes and travel bans, on individuals involved with the production and use of these banned chemical warfare agents.

For its part, Washington should find Russia in violation of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991 (CBW Act), which it employed to penalize Moscow after the Skripal attack. President Trump will need to act expeditiously, however. Under the CBW Act, once the executive branch receives “persuasive information… indicating the substantial possibility” that a foreign government has used a chemical weapon, the president has 60 days to issue a determination regarding attribution of the attack. To ensure that this 60-day clock has started ticking, the chairman and ranking Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a letter to Trump on Sept. 8 formally requesting an investigation into the attack.

Trump delayed swift action over the UK attack and eventually imposed only light penalties on Russia; he should not sidestep his legal obligation to act quickly and decisively on this occasion.

The international community can also pressure Russia by passing a symbolic resolution at the UN General Assembly’s 75th annual meeting condemning Moscow’s probable use of chemical weapons. This resolution would augment condemnatory statements released by the UN high commissioner for human rights, G7, NATO, OPCW, and various governments, including Germany and the UK.

Russia will only be deterred from future chemical weapons attacks if it is met with a forceful and unified international response. Moscow must face repercussions for its latest blatant violation of international law and nonproliferation norms.

Gregory D. Koblentz is director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a member of the Scientists Working Group on Chemical and Biological Security at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregkoblentz. Andrea Stricker is a research fellow focusing on nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD). Follow her on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. FDD is a non-partisan research institute focusing on foreign policy and national security issues.

Tags Aleksei Navalny Assassination of Vladmir Putin's critics Chemical Weapons Convention Donald Trump Nerve agent Novichok agent Russia Russia sanctions Russian dissent Sergei Skripal Vladimir Putin

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