With the world’s focus on the specter of war between Russia and Ukraine, the Twenty-Sixth Session of the Conference of the States Parties to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague at the end of last month was but a side show.

Yet tensions between Russia and Western countries at the OPCW have been running high for some time. Indicative of broader divergences over the rules of multilateral institutions, these tensions have gone to the heart of "right versus might" in international politics, just like Russia’s current attempt to secure Ukraine in its orbit. After years of friction, we are on a slippery slope with Russia at the OPCW, which could well lead to complete paralysis at the organization, if not Moscow’s departure. The implications of such a scenario are not trivial and extend beyond jeopardizing the long-term viability of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Amid the present tension with Russia over Ukraine, it is important not to lose sight of the deeper maladies that afflict the Russia-West relationship at organizations like the OPCW.

More than one year on from the August 2020 poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Russian territory with a novichok nerve agent, all attempts to address the issue within the CWC framework have led to dead ends. The Kremlin staunchly asserts that Germany (where Navalny was transported for treatment) and the OPCW, in holding back their own novichok analyses, are impeding Russia’s probe into the alleged poisoning as mandated by the CWC’s Article VII. Hopes last winter that an OPCW technical assistance mission to Russia could provide an “off-ramp” in the dispute were dashed when Moscow and the OPCW disagreed on terms of reference for the mission.

At the recent October session of the executive council, the OPCW’s policymaking body, forty-five mostly Western states parties tried another path to engage Moscow. They activated the CWC’s Article IX (2) process, formally requesting clarification from Russia on the circumstances surrounding the Navalny poisoning and Moscow’s response to it. The activation was followed by a tit for tat of Russian counteraccusations and questions of its own, which prompted the forty-five states parties to reiterate their request, leading to renewed Russian expressions of irritation. In the latest act of this drama, fifty-five OPCW members issued a statement at last month’s conference, urging Russia yet again to provide the “necessary clarification.”

Acrimony over the Navalny poisoning has merely compounded long-standing grievances between Russia and Western countries over Syria’s compliance with the CWC. Following years of an ever-worsening standoff, Syria’s suspension from the OPCW in April was the last straw. Since then, new compliance concerns vis-à-vis Damascus have emerged, which Russia routinely brushes off as indicative of the West’s desire to “punish an ‘unwanted’ state with the help of the CWC toolkit.”

Discord at the OPCW is no longer just confined to headline-generating issues like Syria or the Navalny poisoning. The organization’s program and budget, for many years adopted by consultation leading to consensus, now requires drawn-out voting processes. Together with nine other parties, Moscow also voted against a decision on the use of central nervous system-acting chemicals for law enforcement purposes at last month’s conference. Russia’s rejection of Western positions manifests itself not just at the Russia-Ukraine border, but also in the plenaries and hallways of organizations that were long deemed permanent fixtures of international politics.

Amid protracted frustration with Russia, some observers called on Moscow earlier this year to “come clean” over the Navalny poisoning or else face suspension from the OPCW. Russia pulling out of the organization might even “be a good thing,” they mused. Russian officials, however, have repeatedly stated that Russia has no intention of quitting, since doing so would give its adversaries a pretext to say: “We told you so.” At the same time, Moscow worries that the OPCW might seek to repeat the “Syria scenario,” with Western states parties using CWC procedures to strip it of its voting rights, too. In the face of such threats, its diplomats forewarn, Russia has its own “arsenal of certain measures” which would be “adequate to the evolving situation.”

Off-ramps from the ongoing escalation are in short supply. The Article IX (2) procedures now in motion constitute a relatively soft instrument in the convention’s compliance toolbox. Should Russia fail to react to the recent plea by fifty-five states parties with answers they consider satisfactory, OPCW members could trigger the next stage of the treaty’s compliance mechanism. The Article IX (3)–(7) procedure would move the process onto a multistage trajectory; in the end, a special session of the conference could be requested to “recommend any measure it deems appropriate to resolve the situation.”

Procedurally, Syria’s suspension from the OPCW earlier this year was triggered through a different pathway of CWC rules, but such nitpicking misses the broader point: having decided to address the Navalny poisoning through the CWC’s compliance mechanisms, Western states will likely feel the pressure to follow through, lest they look inconsistent and weak. Even with a drawn-out process and procedural zigzags, we might well reach the point at which sanctions against Moscow could be put to a vote. There is no chance of Russia reversing course, which would essentially require it to admit having lied all along, not only about the Navalny poisoning, but also about the completeness of its own chemical disarmament. The Kremlin has argued its own line on the Navalny dossier with ardor and stamina.

Indeed, the Syrian, Navalny, and other OPCW dossiers have become a centerpiece of Moscow’s narrative about a dysfunctional “rules-based international order”: Russia’s reference to a perceived Western substitution for international law. Russia holds that, in multilateral organizations like the OPCW, Western states manipulate existing procedures in violation of the convention by replacing consensus decisions with voting, and “privatize” the organization’s secretariat for their own purposes, hence affecting “the prerogatives of the UN Security Council.”

One might well disagree with that charge. That won’t change the reality that Russia has become increasingly skeptical of international cooperation entailing “global structures issuing rules.” Instead, Moscow will go its own way when required, joining efforts with like-minded countries. The current standoff at the OPCW, says Russian political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, would be a serious problem for Russia if it were “unfolding in a stable liberal order.” But since that order has stopped working and “the dysfunction of its institutions” has become apparent, rationality mandates a return to “Russia’s age-old habit of relying primarily on itself.”

Even if proceedings in The Hague stop short of Russia being sanctioned, or Moscow quitting, protracted paralysis at the organization is the best-case-scenario. That is a problem for the viability of the chemical weapons taboo, since the mix of challenges facing the CWC regime going forward—such as weapons acquisition trends, or emerging chemical agents—is unlikely to be able to be addressed with Moscow out in the cold. After all, Moscow holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and has strong ties with nonproliferation-averse actors like China, Iran, and Syria. But the standoff at the OPCW is also worrisome as it is symptomatic of a broader Russia-West chasm over the rules of multilateral institutions. Russia will not accept seeing that chasm resolved by a return to the status quo ante. We should brace ourselves for turbulent times, and not just in The Hague.

This article was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.

  • Hanna Notte