The stalemate in the Chemical Weapons Prohibition Organization is symptomatic of a wider Russian-Western divide over the rules of multilateral institutions. Russia will not accept that a return to the status quo ante will resolve this gap.
Given the global focus on the specter of war between Russia and Ukraine, the 26th Conference of States Parties to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague at the end of last month was only a sideline.
But tensions between Russia and Western countries at the OPCW have been high for some time. These tensions, indicating wider divergences over the rules of multilateral institutions, have penetrated the heart of law versus power in international politics, as has Russia’s current attempt to keep Ukraine in orbit. After years of friction, we are on a slippery path with Russia at the OPCW, which could very well lead to a complete paralysis of the organization, if not to the departure of Moscow. The effects of such a scenario are not trivial and go beyond the threat to the long-term sustainability of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 1997. Amid the current tensions with Russia over Ukraine, it is important not to lose sight of the deeper diseases plaguing Russia-West relations in organizations like the OPCW.
More than a year after the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in August 2020 on Russian territory with a novichok Neurotoxins have led all attempts to tackle the subject in the context of the CWC to dead ends. The Kremlin firmly claims that Germany (where Navalny was transported for treatment) and the OPCW are withholding their own novichok Analyzes, hamper Russia’s investigation into alleged poisoning, as directed by the CWCs Article VII. Hopes last winter that an OPCW technical assistance mission in Russia could provide an “exit” from the dispute were dashed when Moscow and the OPCW disagreed on the mission’s terms of reference.
At the last October meeting of the Executive Council, the political decision-making body of the OPCW, 45 mostly Western signatory states tried another way to involve Moscow. You have activated the CWCs Article IX (2) Process, formal ask for clarification from Russia on the circumstances of the Navalny poisoning and Moscow’s reaction to it. The activation was followed by a ti-for-act of Russian counter-allegations and own questionswhich led the forty-five States parties to repeat their requestwhat to renewed. leads Russian expressions of annoyance. In the latest act of this drama, 55 OPCW members gave a Statement at the conference last month, and again called on Russia to undertake the “necessary clarification”.
The bitterness over the Navalny poisoning only exacerbated the longstanding complaints between Russia and Western countries about Syria’s compliance with the CWC. After years one constantly deteriorating distance, Syria’s suspension from the OPCW in April was the last straw. Since then, new compliance concerns towards Damascus have arisen, which Russia routinely dismisses as a sign of the will of the West, “punish an “undesirable” condition using the CWC toolkit.“
Discord at the OPCW is no longer limited to headline-grabbing issues such as Syria or the Navalny poisoning. The organization Program and budget, which was passed by consensus over many years, now requires lengthy coordination processes. Moscow, along with nine other parties voted against a decision on the use of chemicals affecting the central nervous system for law enforcement purposes at the conference last month. Russia’s rejection of Western positions is manifest not only on the Russian-Ukrainian border, but also in the plenary rooms and corridors of organizations that have long been an integral part of international politics.
Amid ongoing frustration with Russia, earlier this year some observers urged Moscow, “confess“Because of Navalny poisoning or threatens to be suspended from the OPCW. Russia’s withdrawal from the organization could even “be a good thing“, They thought. Russian officials did, however repeatedly stated that Russia has no intention of leaving, as this would give its opponents an excuse to say: “We told you. “At the same time, Moscow fears that the OPCW might try to Repeat the “Syria scenario”, with western contracting states who use CWC procedures to also withdraw their voting rights. Faced with such threats, its diplomats warn, Russia has its own “Arsenal of certain measures“Which would be”appropriate to the developing situation.“
Off-ramps from the ongoing escalation are in short supply. The Article IX (2) procedures now under way are a relatively soft instrument in the Convention’s toolkit for compliance with regulations. Should Russia fail to respond to the recent request from fifty-five contracting states with responses it deems satisfactory, the members of the OPCW could move to the next stage of the fulfillment mechanism. the Article IX (3) – (7) Procedure would move the process on a multi-stage trajectory; at the end of the day, a special session of the conference could be requested torecommend any action it deems appropriate to resolve the situation.“
Procedurally, Syria’s suspension from the OPCW was triggered by a different route of the CWC rules earlier this year, but such subtleties miss the broader core: after deciding to combat Navalny poisoning through the CWC compliance mechanisms, Western states become probably feeling the pressure to pull through so they don’t look inconsistent and weak. Even with a lengthy process and procedural zigzag-zigzag-zigzag-zigzag-zigzag processes, we could reach the point where sanctions against Moscow could be voted on. There is no chance Russia will reverse course, which would essentially mean that it has lied all along, not only about the Navalny poisoning, but the completeness of its own chemical disarmament. The Kremlin has taken its own line on the Navalny dossier with zeal and perseverance.
Indeed, the Syrian, Navalny and other OPCW files have become a central part of Moscow’s narrative of a dysfunctional “rules-based international order”: Russia’s reference to a perceived Western substitution of international law. Russia holds that western states in multilateral organizations such as the OPCW manipulate existing procedures contrary to the Convention by replacing consensus decisions with votes and “privatizing” the secretariat of the organization for their own purposes and thereby impairing “the prerogatives of the UN Security Council”.
One can definitely contradict this accusation. That will not change the fact that Russia has become increasingly skeptical of the international cooperation that it entails.global structures that make rulesInstead, Moscow will go its own way if necessary and join forces with like-minded countries. The current stalemate at the OPCW, says a Russian political scientist Fyodor Lukyanov, would be a serious problem for Russia if it “unfolds in a stable liberal order”. But since this order no longer works and “the dysfunction of its institutions” has become apparent, rationality has demanded a return to “Russia’s age-old habit of relying primarily on oneself”.
Even if the proceedings in The Hague end before Russia is sanctioned or Moscow leaves, protracted paralysis of the organization is the best scenario. This is a problem for the viability of the chemical weapons taboo, as the mix of challenges the CWC regime will face in the future – such as arms acquisition trends or new chemical warfare agents – is unlikely to keep Moscow in the cold to meet . After all, Moscow has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and has close ties to non-proliferation actors such as China, Iran and Syria. But the stalemate at the OPCW is also worrying as it is symptomatic of a wider Russian-Western divide over the rules of multilateral institutions. Russia will not accept this gap by returning to Der Status quo. We should be prepared for turbulent times, not just in The Hague.
This article was published as part of the project “Relaunching US-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation”, which was carried out in cooperation with the US Embassy in Russia. The opinions, results, and conclusions contained herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy in Russia.