Russia completes the destruction of chemical weapons stockpile

Yesterday the Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü of Turkey, congratulated Russia on completing the destruction of its chemical weapon stockpile which originally totaled 39967 agent tonnes (i.e., excluding munition weight). This represents a major milestone towards realizing a world without chemicals weapons as envisaged by the negotiators of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention’s (CWC).

The experience of a 1989 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and a 1990 Bilateral Destruction Agreement (BDA) concluded between the Soviet Union and the United States partly informs the procedures by which possessor states declare their chemical weapons to the OPCW and how the OPCW verifies their destruction. Russia and the United States also consulted each other on the development of common understandings on the selection and optimization of chemical weapon destruction technologies, including within the framework of the 1992 Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. Other states (such as Germany) and civil society (such as Green Cross Russia, and Global Green USA) played important roles in such efforts, including by supporting risk assessment and public outreach at Russia’s seven chemical weapons storage facilities.

As a rule, the completion of destruction operations is marked by a closing ceremony with the OPCW Director-General (or other designated representative) in attendance. However, such a ceremony was deemed infeasible in this case (for unclear reasons) and Ambassador Üzümcü issued his statement at OPCW headquarters in The Hague.

The United States, the other major possessor of a chemical weapon stockpile (which originally totaled approximately 30000 agent tonnes), has completed the destruction of approximately 90 per cent of its stockpile and is scheduled to finish its operations by 2023. Old chemical weapons (in the low hundreds of tonnes) will continue to be recovered and destroyed under OPCW verification for some years. Most such recoveries originate from former World War I battlefields in Europe or are chemical weapons left in China by Japan at the end of World War II.

The treaty regime is entering a 'post-chemical weapons destruction’ phase. At least two visions may be realised: one of an OPCW focused on chemical weapon threats with most resources allocated accordingly, the other for the OPCW to serve as a model of international outreach and capacity-building for the peaceful uses of chemistry. This transition will occur under the guidance of a new Director-General starting next year.

The CWC treaty regime remains a platform for the Member States to cooperate on technical matters. It is imperative for the OPCW to retain its capacity to help ensure the non-re-emergence of chemical warfare over the indefinite future.

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