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former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
Russia Uses Opiate-Based Gas on Militants
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Russian law enforcement authorities stormed a Moscow theater October 26 after pumping gas into the building, where Chechen militants were holding more than 700 people hostage. Many hostages were rescued, but 115-117 hostages died from the effects of the gas, according to media reports.

Despite Russia’s early reluctance to name the gas, Health Minister Yuri Shevchenko said in a press conference October 30 that it was based on the opiate fentanyl. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list fentanyl as an “incapacitating” chemical agent.

The death toll and Russia’s early reluctance to identify the gas have raised concerns that the use of the substance might violate the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which Russia ratified in 1997. Shevchenko said, “No chemical substances that could fall within the international weapons convention were used in the course of the operation.”

The CWC does not prohibit “riot control agents,” defined as chemicals that “can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure,” although it bans the use of such agents in warfare. Some analysts expressed concern that the gas used in the theater might violate the CWC because of the fatalities it caused.
It is unclear whether CWC member states, including the United States, which has its own “non-lethal” chemical agent program, will decide to challenge Russia’s use of the gas under the convention.