Russia’s Chemical Romance: Don’t Call It a WMD Attack


Retired Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury, England earlier this month. British Prime Minister Theresa May said on March 14 that investigators had evidence that the two individuals “had been poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.” Nearly two weeks after the attack, British police are still cordoning off the area and more than 20 people have received medical care. Skripal and his daughter are reportedly in critical condition. The United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany have released a joint statement formally blaming Russia for the incident. Russian officials have, of course, rejected the accusation.

This is not the first time Russia has been accused of using unconventional means to try to kill off Russian expatriates residing in the United Kingdom. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a critic of the Russian government, was poisoned by ingesting polonium-210 in his tea while meeting friends in a central London hotel. Six days later, he entered a hospital after feeling ill, and died shortly thereafter. The evidence, in the form of radioactive contamination and its trail through London, strongly suggested the Russian government’s involvement. Similar to the Salisbury case, Russia did not appear to be too concerned about this attribution.

In perhaps the most famous case of unconventional assassinations, in 1978 Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident who lived in London, was killed by a man who shot a ricin-filled pellet into his thigh using a specially modified umbrella. Officially, the case has never been closed, but again, evidence suggested involvement by the Soviet Union’s KGB and members of the Bulgarian secret police. Unlike the 2006 and 2018 events, that event was meant to be covert. Initial medical examination of Markov suggested a natural cause of death. The real story was only discovered when a second Bulgarian dissident was similarly attacked, though he survived due to the pellet’s failure to dispense all of its ricin.

Some have argued that the Russian government carries out these assassinations, even on the territory of a sovereign — and nuclear-armed — state, to intimidate other Russian critics of the Putin regime. The Salisbury incident would fit into this pattern. The message seems to be: If you cross Mother Russia, it may take years, but you will die and it will be painful. Using a chemical agent is a significant change, showing that Russia has expanded its tool-set from the usual blunt force trauma, suicides, and shootings that happen to other critics of the regime — exiled millionaires, journalists, musicians, opposition politicians, and the like. The question is, how should the West react?

Assuming Russia did conduct a covert assassination within the United Kingdom using a chemical weapon, it is a criminal act and not necessarily a treaty violation. The prime minister’s expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats and promise to detain incoming intelligence agents is absolutely the correct response. Sending the case to the United Nations as a treaty violation would be a waste of time and would only publicize Russia’s contempt for the liberal international order. The Salisbury incident shows that it is not analytically useful to place chemical weapons attacks on individuals and large-scale chemical weapons use during military conflicts in the same nebulous category of “weapons of mass destruction.”

Just Another Tool

The typical Western approach to these events is to focus on the exotic means of the death, arguing that using chemical or biological weapons in assassination attempts is a direct violation of international treaties. Indeed, the Chemical Weapons Convention does state that its signatories are not “to develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons.” The general obligations clearly state that state parties are not to use chemical weapons, though the treaty doesn’t address non-state actor use (as they are not signatories).

The Biological Weapons Convention similarly calls for state parties to renounce the development and production of biological agents and weapons designed for hostile purposes. The Markov incident occurred after the Soviet Union ratified the treaty and the convention entered into force. Notably, the State Department reported in 2017 that it remains unclear whether Russia has fulfilled its obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention and that Russia’s declaration under the Chemical Weapons Convention “is incomplete with respect to its chemical agent and weapons stockpiles.” Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to focus on Russia’s treaty violations in these alleged assassination cases.

Instead, the international community should look at this recent incident in context — as a murder investigation and not as a treaty violation. Before Litvinenko died, he remarked that the Russian regime used poisons as just another weapon for assassinations. The Chemical Weapons Convention is not meant to address chemical weapons usage outside the context of military conflict. It was drafted after years of debate about how to address the possibility of nation-states employing chemical weapons in combat with other nation-states. Although the language is broad and not specific to warfare, the language of the treaty and the discussion surrounding chemical weapons has focused on their “abhorrent” nature. The treaty sought to eliminate the possibility of military armies using chemical weapons in large quantities to weaken enemy forces, immobilize strategic bases, and kill unprotected civilians in major cities. It was not designed to address sub-state groups developing their own chemical weapons or state security forces using chemical weapons to defuse a hostage situation.

The United States and United Kingdom have both clearly described this incident as a Russian chemical attack against the United Kingdom, emphasizing the phrase “military-grade nerve agent.” This is a mistake, especially by those who call it a “WMD incident.” Within the United States, there is a legal code to address cases in which people use chemical weapons to injure or kill a person, separate from the legal code that calls for the U.S. government to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention. There’s a reason for this. The first code addresses the perpetrator’s intent to use a chemical weapon. The second code addresses the conduct of people within the U.S. government who develop or produce such a weapon. The case of Carol Anne Bond v. the United States demonstrated this concept by establishing that when an individual uses a chemical weapon to injure or kill another, the WMD possession charge is secondary to its actual use in a crime. Context matters.

This focus on the means rather than the murderer presents a perfect opportunity for the Russian government to push back on the credibility of the analysis and the source of the agent. It makes it harder to address the fundamental issue of whether Russia’s agents were in England attempting to assassinate a former Russian double agent. Don’t get distracted by the theatrics about a “deadly military-grade nerve agent.” Focus on the victim and the perpetrator, not the weapon.

Addressing Russia’s Violations

The State Department released a press statement that states “Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury last week.” But the statement reserves its outrage for the fact that “Russia appears to have again engaged” in the “attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation.” That’s the real issue. The United Kingdom should explore all possible avenues to address these violations of its sovereignty, whether the weapon used was a truncheon, a faked suicide, a gun, or a chemical agent. In the past, the British government has largely ignored these Russian assassination cases, so May’s decision to expel the diplomats is a welcome one.

However, charging Russia with a treaty violation has a few significant challenges. First, Russia will dispute the charge and demand to see the evidence for the purpose of obfuscation. Although the use of an exotic, persistent nerve agent that was once manufactured inside the Soviet Union would seem to indicate the source, they’ll debate the attribution. Chemical agents, once the formulation is known, can be cooked up anywhere. Russia will then stop the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons from making the case and bringing it up to the United Nations Security Council, should the United Kingdom directly challenge Russia as the culprit through that channel. As a permanent member of the council, Russia can veto and block any investigation, as it has with cases being built against its Syrian ally. Finally, Russia — a nuclear power second only to the United States — doesn’t fear military retaliation and will shrug off criminal investigations. Putin wants the notoriety and is willing to risk economic and diplomatic sanctions.

This also applies to the recent North Korean use of the nerve agent VX against one of its citizens in Malaysia. North Korea isn’t a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the intelligence community has long known of the regime’s chemical weapons stockpile. The condemnation of the Malaysia incident, similar to the Salisbury case, should focus less on the chemical weapon used and more on the fact that a state sanctioned a hit on a private citizen in another country. A statement of “grave concern” from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Executive Council is hardly going to strike fear into the heart of the Kim regime. Similarly, if Russia was sending a direct message to potential dissidents and double agents, its leaders are not really going to care about the niceties of international treaties that address weapons of mass destruction.

The technical community of WMD experts should not lead the discussion on this case. Yes, they’re going to be eager to examine the use of a chemical weapon in a contemporary security setting, but technical expertise isn’t the same thing as policy expertise. While these analysts can tell you everything about the composition of the agent and how the arms control community regulates these actions, this doesn’t advance knowledge on the diplomatic impact on relations between Russia and the West.

Chemical weapons are a class of “weapons of mass destruction,” but that needs to be put into context. A gram of chemical agent used against an individual is not “mass destruction.” The category “WMD” has been useful in arms control efforts to address the potential chemical and biological weapons programs by nation-states, given the concern that governments might employ such agents in large-scale attacks against unprotected civilians. U.S. policy has largely focused on that aspect rather than on the covert and criminal use of small-scale, single attacks. As a result, we have the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations making equivalencies between the Salisbury case and Syrian chemical attacks that have killed hundreds.

The Department of Justice does not distinguish between small and large quantities of chemical or biological hazards that individuals might use against another person in a criminal act. It doesn’t distinguish between “military-grade” chemical agents or industrial hazards for that matter, calling it all “WMD.” That’s been a mistake, one that makes it more difficult for the U.S. government to achieve its WMD-related policy objectives as stated in the National Security Strategy. The Salisbury case in particular should demonstrate the value of distinguishing between the weapon programs that nation-states develop for their military forces and the assassination tool that spies and violent extremists use against individuals.

Al Mauroni is the Director of the U.S. Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies and author of the book, “Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction: Assessing the U.S. Government’s Policy.” The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.


Image: Cpl. Mandaline Hatch