The 1967 decree of the CPSU Central Committee and USSR Council of Ministers launched the start of massive chemical weapons productions in the Soviet Union. Twenty-six years later, on January 13, 1993, the Russian Federation signed the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (shortened to "Chemical Weapons Convention" or "CWC"), and, on November 5, 1997, ratified the treaty. Now, 20 years later on September 27, 2017, Russia declared it has successfully eliminated the last of its massive CW stockpiles, according to TASS Russian News Agency reports. The Kuwait News Agency reports that this declaration was verified by inspection teams from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which officially inspected Russia's chemical weapons stockpiles on October 11, 2017, and declared them to be completely free of chemical weapons.

Chemical weapons

Chemical weapons (CWs) are defined by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCD) as "...any toxic chemical or its precursor that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action. Munitions or other delivery devices designed to deliver chemical weapons, whether filled or unfilled, are also considered weapons themselves." Due to the fact that many compounds which can potentially be used as CWs or as CW precursors also have worthy and necessary industrial uses, the CWC further classifies CWs into one of three categories:

  • "Schedule 1 chemicals have been used as chemical weapons in the past and/or have very few or no peaceful uses, and thus pose the most direct threat to the Convention.
  • Schedule 2 chemicals are primarily precursors to Schedule 1 chemicals and most have some industrial uses.
  • Schedule 3 chemicals are produced in large quantities commercially but in some cases were used as chemical warfare agents and can also serve as precursors to Schedule 1 or 2 chemicals.

While Schedule 2 and Schedule 3 chemicals can be produced for research and industrial purposes, under the CWC, countries cannot create or store any amounts Schedule 1 chemicals due to their primary (often sole) use as chemical weapons.

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However, when the CWC was ratified in 1997, many countries had already amassed large quantities of CWs belonging to all three schedules. In particular, Russia declared the largest amount of stockpiled chemical weapons--39,967 metric tons--followed closely by the United States (which reported 27,770 metric tons).

Russia's CW destruction program

Soviet Russia's CW destruction program was divided into two phases laid forth by the Wyoming Memorandum Of Understanding. This memorandum was signed between the US and Soviet Russia in 1989 in order to facilitate a bilateral exchange of information about each party's chemical weapons and to allow for verification inspections of each party's declared stockpile locations.

Phase I of the Wyoming Memorandum of Understanding consisted of bilateral data exchange of each country's quantities, types, and locations of CWs as well as their existing production and destruction facilities. In addition, it included full disclosure of percentages of chemical weapons held in storage containers and deployable munitions.

Visits to and inspections of both parties' chemical weapons facilities culminated in expert visits conducted in January and February of 1991 (ten months before the collapse of the Soviet Union)--five to U.S. chemical weapons facilities and one to Soviet chemical weapons facilities.

Phase II of the Wyoming Memorandum of Understanding, conducted in 1994, consisted of five inspections of each party's CWs facilities and further data exchange about each country's CW destruction programs. However, some of the data released by Russia during Phase II were found to be incomplete and/or inconsistent with Russia's previously declared data.

Two years later--three years after signing the CWC and a year before ratifying it--the Russian Federation made Russian Federation Decree #305, (21 March 1996), On the Approval of the Special Federal Targeted Program for the Destruction of Chemical Weapons Stockpiles in the Russian Federation. The decree listed three objectives for Russian CW destruction:

  • Destroy the stockpile in accordance with the CWC,
  • Improve the ecological conditions of the areas surrounding chemical weapons storage and destruction sites, and
  • Mitigate public concerns about living in close proximity to the storage locations.

These objectives addressed not only destruction of Russia's CW stockpiles, but also mitigation of environmental and societal damages caused to regions surrounding Russian CW facilities.

Due to challenges discussed in the next section, Russia (along with the United States and most other state parties) was unable to achieve 100 percent destruction of all chemical weapon stockpiles by 2007, the initial CWC-mandated deadline for total chemical weapon stockpile destruction, and was granted an extension until 2012. However, Russia was also unable to meet the 2012 deadline (along with the United States and several other countries which also requested extensions).

Challenges of chemical weapon destruction

Russia, along with the United States and other countries that signed the CWC, faced several challenges in implementing its CW destruction program. Partly due to the fact that Russia's CWs were spread across seven different sites covering a large portion of the country, Russia's initial estimated cost of completing the destruction of their nearly 40,000 tons of stockpiled CWs was estimated to be around seven billion dollars, according to the Arms Control Association. Considering Russia's financial crisis in 1998, this was a particularly difficult undertaking. Although Russia received financial support for CW destruction from several countries (including Germany, the United States, Italy, and Sweden, among others), Russia still faced financial difficulties which greatly delayed completion of the program and resulted in missed deadlines.

In addition, concerns about the environmental hazards posed by employed methods of chemical weapon destruction further compounded Russia's difficulties in meeting chemical weapon destruction deadlines. Until the early 1970's, countries routinely disposed of CWs by dumping them into oceans or burning them off in large pits. As a safer alternative, Russia adopted a two-stage neutralization and bituminization process. This two-stage process forms a solid bitumen salt mass which can be safely stored and which poses much lower health and environmental risks than its predecessor chemical warfare agents.

Furthermore, Russia halted the transport of CWs to distant destruction facilities--the initial protocol--and instead began the destruction of chemical weapons near each of the seven stockpiles in order to minimize environmental contamination due to spills and accidents. This also lessened the amount of time and money spent transporting chemical weapons to be destroyed, leaving more funds to be allocated to the actual destruction of chemical weapons.

Going forward

Russia's destruction of 100 percent of its chemical weapons stockpiles, which has been verified by official OPCW inspections, is a significant step towards fully eradicating chemical warfare. Especially considering that Russia formerly held the largest stock of chemical weapons in the world, Russia's own efforts to safely destroy all 40,000 metric tons of its stockpiled CWs coupled with the efforts of other state parties who came to Russia's aid have greatly lessened the global threat posed by CWs. In an online video conference reported by TASS News Agency, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that, "Without fanfare, we can say that this is indeed a historic event given the huge amount of chemical stockpiles since the Soviet time. Specialists said it could be used to destroy everything that moves on the Earth several times." Congratulations to Russia and all the other countries who have lessened the threat of chemical warfare by achieving 100% chemical weapon destruction.