Russia, U.S. Lag on Chemical Arms Deadline

Rachel A. Weise

The likely failure of Russia and the United States, the holders of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, to meet a key treaty deadline for destroying their stocks is prompting varying responses from experts. In recent public statements and interviews, officials involved in the process emphasized the progress and commitment of the two countries, while independent experts expressed concern about the effect of the missed deadline on the nonproliferation regime.

Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) must irreversibly destroy their stockpiles of chemical weapons by April 29, 2012. As of June 24, 188 countries were parties to the convention, and two more countries had signed but not yet ratified it.

The CWC is testimony to how "successful and fruitful" the cooperation between Russia and the United States can be, Rogelio Pfirter, director-general of the treaty secretariat, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Hague, said June 16. In a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, Pfirter, whose term as OPCW director-general ends next year, declined to speculate whether the two countries would meet the CWC destruction deadline. He acknowledged that "time is short" because so many weapons remain to be destroyed by 2012.

But he also said it is important not to "trump up" possible scenarios. Other CWC member states should wait to see how Russia and the United States progress as the deadline approaches, he said. When his successor and the representatives of the CWC's member states wake up on the morning of April 30, 2012, they will need to reassess the status of the chemical weapons destruction effort and determine if the possessor states were negligent in meeting their commitments, he said.

In his remarks, Pfirter emphasized the progress made by Russia and the United States toward meeting the treaty's requirements. "I applaud the Russian government's commitment" to chemical demilitarization, he said. He also said he has "no doubt" about the U.S. commitment to the CWC, although estimates for when the United States will complete destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile have varied. In November 2006, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that destruction would not be complete until 2020 and 2023 at the chemical weapons depots in Pueblo, Colorado, and Blue Grass, Kentucky, respectively. Increased funding may hasten the demilitarization process, a knowledgeable U.S. official said.

Russia's progress is expected to be slower. Although the May 2009 formal opening of the Shchuchye chemical agent destruction facility brings Russia one step closer to fulfilling its CWC obligations, there is still a sizable stockpile of Russian chemical weapons awaiting destruction. Jonathan B. Tucker, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, said he was highly skeptical that Russia will meet the treaty deadline. Although not disputing that assessment, the U.S. official said the United States believes that Russia has "demonstrated complete commitment" to its CWC obligations.

Russian Destruction Process

In addition to the challenge presented by the approximately 28,000 metric tons of chemical weapons in Russia that remain to be destroyed, some observers are concerned about the demilitarization process that Russia is using. At certain facilities, Russia has carried out the first part of the chemical weapons destruction process but has not taken the subsequent steps needed for complete destruction as specified in the CWC. For example, at the Leonidovka destruction site, Russia has drained the toxic fill from many munitions and used a chemical process to neutralize the warfare agents, but it has just started incinerating the delivery vehicles and the neutralized liquids, Pfirter explained in a speech to the OPCW executive council in April. For that reason, the OPCW has not yet formally recognized any chemical weapons destruction at Leonidovka despite much activity there.

Failure to destroy all chemical weapons components irreversibly can have serious repercussions for the nonproliferation regime, Tucker said. It would be relatively easy for someone to refill an empty munition with a chemical agent to reconstitute a chemical weapon, said Paul Walker, director of security and sustainability at Global Green USA. Security has improved at many of Russia's chemical weapons storage sites, he added, but the risk of refilling bomb or shell casings will remain as long as the munitions exist.

Walker further cautioned that Russia's partial demilitarization process could set a "dangerous precedent" if the OPCW grants Russia destruction credit for separating chemical weapons into their various components before it has irreversibly destroyed them. The danger is that a CWC nonsignatory, such as Syria, might later accede to the CWC, demilitarize in a manner similar to Russia, receive credit for destruction prematurely, and then secretly recover the chemical warfare agent from the neutralized reaction mass or refill empty munitions with new agents, he said. According to the U.S. official, Moscow and the OPCW negotiated modified procedures specifically for Russia, granting it demilitarization credit earlier in the destruction process to help it meet the 2012 deadline. Walker said that Russia received destruction credit for neutralizing nerve agents at the Maradykovsky destruction site even though it has not destroyed the associated bomb casings. In another instance, the OPCW granted Russia destruction credit after it neutralized chemical agents but before it incinerated the reaction mass, Walker said. Although the OPCW has been fairly lenient to date on this issue, it might become stricter as the 2012 deadline approaches because Iran, which is a party to the treaty, has expressed concern about Russia's receiving credit for destruction prior to reaching an irreversible end point, Walker said. (See ACT, May 2008.)

At the opening ceremony for the Shchuchye chemical weapons destruction facility, Russian Industry Minister Viktor Khristenko said that Russia is on schedule to meet the CWC deadline and that it will have destroyed 45 percent of its arsenal by the end of this year.

To date, the United States has destroyed about 60 percent of its stockpile. The United States "is very committed to finishing the job," the U.S. official said. In recent years, the Defense Department has sped up demilitarization by allocating more funds and building new destruction facilities, he said. In 2006 the United States was projected to have destroyed only about two-thirds of its stockpile by 2012; the current estimate of 90 percent destroyed by 2012 reflects the increased pace, he said.

Potential Repercussions

Although the CWC does not impose automatic sanctions in cases of noncompliance, there could be serious political fallout if Russia and the United States have not completely destroyed their stockpiles by the 2012 deadline, Tucker and Walker said.

Some CWC member states have voiced concern at the slow pace of U.S. disarmament. During the CWC's second review conference in April 2008, Iran rebuked "major possessor states" for insufficient progress toward the 2012 deadline, adding that the destruction delay "is a matter of serious concern" because it indicates a state's intention to retain certain stockpiles for military purposes. Walker noted that a U.S. failure to meet the CWC destruction deadline would weaken its negotiating position with Iran, North Korea (a nonsignatory of the CWC), and other countries that Washington has criticized for breaking international law.

Amending the CWC to extend the destruction deadline seems very unlikely, in large part because of the difficult process that the treaty has established for making amendments, Walker said.

Russia and the United States are inclined to oppose that approach anyway because opening the CWC to amendment could bring about unwanted changes, Walker and the U.S. official said. Two examples are Iran's call for the abolition of export controls on certain chemical agents and other states' desire to reduce the monitoring of industrial plants that produce dual-use chemicals, the official said.