Chemically Imbalanced

Chemically Imbalanced

Russia’s recent usage of chemical weapons is compromising relations with the U.S.
Hayley Helmut

Despite Russia’s signature on the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) treaty, the Kremlin is being accused of using chemical weapons on a former Russian intelligence officer in March. Putin is being held accountable for the use of the chemical agent Novichok against former GRU officer Sergei Skripal in England. The attempted assassination has led the United States to threaten Russia with new sanctions, as there is a zero-tolerance of the use of such weapons, especially against civilians. The U.S. and Great Britain are holding Putin responsible for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. On March 3, 2018, Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were found on a park bench, slipping in and out of consciousness. Eyewitnesses say Skripal was staring blankly into the sky while making strange, jerky hand movements. Both he and his daughter were said to be foaming at the mouth. The pair had been exposed to a Novichok nerve agent, most likely with the intention to kill. [1]


In the early 1990s, Sergei Skripal became an intelligence officer for the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, but shortly thereafter he began passing off the Kremlin’s secrets. In the mid-90s, Skripal was recruited by MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, as a double agent. He spied for the British from 1996 until he was arrested in December 2004 for his betrayal. In court, Skripal admitted to passing classified documents to the British, earning a total of $100,000 for his services-a mere $12,500 a year. Although exactly what information Mr. Skripal passed on to MI6 has not been made public, British officials have recently described him as “a little fish.” It seems as though even the Russians viewed Skripal in the same light, as he received a reduced sentence of 13 years once convicted in 2006. Luckily for Mr. Skripal, the F.B.I.’s arrest of ten Russian sleeper agents during the summer of 2010 had brought the Kremlin to the table, ready to make a trade. Sergei Skripal and three other Russian prisoners were set free in exchange for the ten Russian spies who operated in the U.S. Skripal ended up relocating to Great Britain to live out the rest of his life in peace. [2]

For eight years, Mr. Skripal did just that, until the day that two GRU members paid a visit to Salisbury to visit the city’s famous cathedral. [1]
Novichok, the chemical weapon used against Sergei Skripal and his daughter, is a military-grade nerve agent that was developed by the Soviet Union throughout the 1970s and 80s. The chemical agent is named after the Russian word for “newcomer” as its development was a major breakthrough for the power of chemical weapons. Even today, Novichok continues to be one of the deadliest options on the market. Nerve agents work by overriding neurotransmitters in the body and stopping their normal functions. The attack on the nervous system forces the body’s muscles to contract and for vital body parts, such as the heart or the diaphragm, to shut down. Generally, victims of nerve agents die due to heart failure or suffocation. Novichok has been described as a “more dangerous and sophisticated” nerve agent than other powerful agents such as sarin or VX. The agent can also be easily transported, and go undetected, as the various “precursors” are relatively safe until combined to create the weapon. [3] The extreme lethality of such weapons in such small amounts is exactly why there is an international treaty against the use of chemical warfare.


The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is a treaty with 193 member countries, Russia included, that calls for the prohibition of testing, developing, or using chemical weapons, as well as the destruction of any preexisting weapons. The negotiations surrounding the CWC began in 1980 and opened for signatures of any countries wishing to participate in January 1993. In April of 1997 the treaty was put into force. At the time of implementation, Russia declared 40,000 metric tons (roughly 88 million pounds) of Category 1 chemical weapons. Category 1 includes chemicals and precursors which pose a “high risk”; these chemicals, such as sarin and VX, are generally stored as chemical weapons. The convention declared that Russia had completed destruction of these weapons on September 27, 2017, but the Kremlin is still being linked to such attacks against Sergei Skripal in 2018. [4]


The U.S. is now looking to impose sanctions on Russia as a result of their blatant use of chemical weapons despite treaty agreements. In August, the State Department had threatened sanctions if Russia refused to comply with the Chemical and Biological Weapons and Warfare Elimination Act within 90 days. The law requires that Russia end the use of Novichok, commit to banning chemical weapons use against its own people, and allow on-site inspections by agencies such as the UN. Russia has not responded to this proposition and has also denied involvement in the attack all together. An initial round of sanctions had already been implemented in August with the State Department claiming that the second round would be “more draconian.” [5] The new sanctions could include a downgrade or suspension of diplomatic relations with Russia, a suspension of airline flights between the U.S. and Russia, or a restriction on the import of Russian goods.[6]


Despite Russia’s denial regarding chemical weapons usage, it seems almost undeniable that the Kremlin still possesses such capabilities. Novichok is exclusively Russian, unless the Kremlin has lost control of the agent, a scenario which has neither been proposed or confirmed. [3] This leaves the country with a bread crumb trail they cannot ignore. Putin has made his feelings regarding defectors very well-known in interviews. He has referred to double agents as “swine” and has claimed that treachery is the one sin that he is incapable of forgiving. Mr. Skripal was granted freedom under the presidency of Medvedev, a faithful, but more cooperative, deputy of Putin’s. [2] How insignificant Mr. Skripal’s contribution to British intelligence was irrelevant to Putin. He wanted to send a message to those who betrayed Russia. The U.S. cannot allow such attacks to go unaddressed, especially considering the falsehood Russia has perpetrated by claiming to have destroyed its chemical weapons stockpile. President Trump should continue to take a hard stance against the use of chemical weapons by any country, as they still pose a serious threat to the world as a whole.

  1. “Russian spy: What happened to Sergei and Yulia Skripal?”, BBC News, 27 September 2018, https:// www.bbc.com/news/uk-43643025.
  2. Michael Schwirtz and Ellen Barry, “A Spy Story: Sergei Skripal Was a Little Fish. He Had a Big Enemy.”, The New York Times, 09 September 2018, https:// www.nytimes.com/2018/09/09/ world/europe/sergei-skripal-russianspy-poisoning.html.
  3. Andrew Griffin, “What is Novichok, the deadly nerve agent found on the streets of the UK in two separate incidents?”, Independent, 05 September 2018, https:// www.independent.co.uk/news/ science/novichok-nerve-agent-what-is -it-explained-amesbury-wiltshire
    salisbury-a8523626.html.
  4. “The Chemical Weapons Convention at a Glance”, Arms Control Association (ACA), 22 June 2018, https:// www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/ cwcglance.
  5. Patricia Zengerle and Lesley Wroughton, “U.S. says to issue chemical weapons-related sanctions against Russia”, Reuters, 06 November 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/ususa-russia-sanctions/u-s-says-to-issue -chemical-weapons-related-sanctionsagainst-russia-idUSKCN1NB2M7.
  6. Courtney McBride, “U.S. Finding on Russia Chemical Weapons Paves Way for New Sanctions”, The Wall Street Journal, 06 November 2018, https:// www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-finding-onrussia-chemical-arms-paves-way-fornew-sanctions-1541544910.

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