The Human Element in Russia's Chemical Weapons Disposal Efforts

By Khripunov, Igor | Arms Control Today, July 1995 | Go to article overview

The Human Element in Russia's Chemical Weapons Disposal Efforts


Khripunov, Igor, Arms Control Today


The tragic events in Tokyo on the morning of March 20 re-awakened international attention to the issue of chemical weapons as a potent tool of warfare, terrorism and intimidation.

That morning, 12 Japanese subway commuters were killed and thousands more hospitalized when the highly toxic nerve agent sarin was released on several trains at the height of the morning rush hour. Police later found tons of sarin on one of the compounds owned by the fanatical Bhuddist religious sect Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) and have arrested a number of key members of the sect, including the leader, charging at least seven of them with murder.

Coincidence or not, the Russian government took a major public step toward the goal of chemical weapons dismantlement just four days after the Tokyo terrorist attack, when President Boris Yeltsin signed Presidential Decree No. 314, which spells out long-awaited steps designed to accelerate and better coordinate Russia's chemical weapons demilitarization efforts.

Yeltsin's decree sets up a special interagency commission, chaired by his national security adviser, Yuri Baturin, whose mandate is unprecedented in its scope. Attached to the decree was a list of specific assignments and functions for each participating federal ministry or agency involved in this process.

Slow Progress, Large CW Quantities

There is ample room for global concern about the speed with which Russia, as the successor state to the Soviet Union, has been moving to destroy the enormous stockpile of Soviet-built chemical warfare (CW) agents. There has been little or no progress despite the fact that Russia has a long-standing commitment to chemical demilitarization; the Soviet Union declared its unilateral termination of CW production in 1987; Moscow has signed (but not yet ratified) the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that will require complete CW stockpile destruction--normally within 10 years after the convention goes into effect; and has withdrawn an earlier Soviet reservation to the Geneva Protocol of 1925 that maintained Moscow's option to use CW in retaliation to a chemical weapons attack. Major Washington-Moscow bilateral undertakings are the Wyoming Memorandum of Understanding of September 1989 providing for an exchange of data and visits, as well as the yet-to-come-into-force bilateral agreement of June 1990, which stipulates that CW destruction "shall begin" no later than December 31, 1992.

Russia is committed to destroy all 40,000 agent tons of chemical weapons stored at seven sites whose locations, until January 1994, remained classified, when the government revealed its CW storage sites through an article in Rossiiskaya Gazeta (see box, p. 17).(1) However, further details of Russia's stockpiles came from U.S. sources after a Russian military officer gave a draft Defense Ministry CW destruction concept paper to a U.S. non-governmental environmental organization.

These added details were reprinted September 16, 1994, in the Moscow-based newspaper Obshchaya Gazeta, prompting Russian experts to react angrily to what they viewed as continued Russian government disregard for national public opinion and its importance in the chemical demilitarization process.

Chemical weapons destruction in Russia is moving slowly for a number of reasons, including the state of internal debate and technological, economic, financial and logistical factors.

But the greatest impediment, which in the past completely wrecked government efforts to launch a nationwide chemical demilitarization program, is the lack of government understanding of and sensitivity to the human factor--the willingness to listen to, and deal with, the ideas and opinions of local populations and the public in general.

The communist mentality of imposing the will of the Moscow-based federal government on local communities where chemical weapons were to be destroyed misfired at least twice in late 1980s and early 1990s.

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