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Trump Should Act Against Russia’s Use of Chemical Weapons

Existing sanctions aren’t deterring Moscow. Fortunately, there’s bipartisan agreement on the need for new ones.

Donald J. Trump, who has repeatedly claimed that no president has been “as tough on Russia as I have been,” has an opportunity to make good on that claim — and cement a legacy as a champion of the global norm against the use of chemical weapons. The president should heed calls from both parties in Congress and join our European allies in imposing sanctions on Moscow for its repeated use of an advanced chemical weapon.

On Aug. 20, Alexei Navalny fell violently ill while traveling in Russia. The prominent Russian dissident was rushed to Germany for medical treatment, where labs in Germany, Sweden, and France determined that he had been poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent. The presence of a toxic chemical related to the Novichok family of nerve agents, developed in the 1980s by the Soviet Union, was confirmed by independent testing spearheaded by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, the international body charged with implementation of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, or CWC. 

Novichok and its close relatives have long been banned under international law and Russia’s own membership in the CWC. Moscow maintains that it dismantled its chemical weapons program under OPCW monitoring in 2017

Yet Russian telephone logs obtained by Bellingcat, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Russia service, and two other publications paint a damning pattern of communications between several known intelligence agents, chemists, and state laboratories tied to the secretive unit “29155” of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. Communications between the actors appear to discuss arrangements that culminated in the botched 2018 Novichok attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal in Britain.

Dispelling any doubt that Navalny’s poisoning could have been orchestrated by a non-state actor, the EU affirmed that Novichok “is accessible only to State authorities in the Russian Federation.” This conclusion was echoed by Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher A. Ford in a Nov. 18 speech: “Let me be perfectly clear: there is no plausible explanation for Mr. Navalny’s poisoning other than Russian government responsibility.”

In response to the Navalny attack, the European Union and UK slapped sanctions on six Kremlin, Federal Security Service, and Ministry of Defense officials and one state laboratory they hold responsible for the attack. Yet Russia continues to deny that it possesses or produces Novichok agents. Clearly, more action is needed to deter Russia’s further use of chemical weapons. 

President Trump should immediately hold Moscow accountable under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991, or CBW Act. The Act gives the administration 60 days to issue a determination, once evidence is obtained, whether chemical weapons use has occurred and, if so, impose sanctions. For the Navalny attack, the deadline triggered by a House of Representatives letter to the president passed on Nov. 7, but with no action from the administration. 

This week, in a rare show of bipartisanship, the House of Representatives approved a resolution calling upon President Trump to punish Russia for poisoning Mr. Navalny by imposing sanctions on the Russian government, as required by the 1991 CBW Act, and to do the same to Russian officials responsible for the incident, as required by the Magnitsky Act. In addition, a bipartisan group of senators has also proposed sanctions that would target both key Russian officials and Putin’s personal assets.

It is worth recalling that the administration only acted after some delay following the Skripal attack. Thus far, the administration has only taken a token measure to hold Russia accountable. On Aug. 27, the Commerce Department blacklisted two Russian research centers for suspected chemical weapons development. One entity, the 33rd Central Research and Testing Institute, was named in the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty report. Another entity, the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology, was included in the UK and European sanctions. There is an urgent need to do more.

The executive branch has ample evidence to render a determination that Russia used a chemical weapon against Navalny. Indeed, Assistant Secretary Ford’s speech indicates that such a determination has already been made. The administration should waste no more time in utilizing the CBW Act, the Magnitsky Act, and other non-proliferation sanctions authorities at its disposal. It should present a convincing case for the Kremlin’s responsibility for the attempted assassinations of Skripal and Navalny, detail Russia’s violations of the CWC, including the continued production and possession of Novichok nerve agents, and impose tough penalties on Moscow for its egregious behavior. 

These sanctions should target the individuals and entities identified by the European sanctions and the joint media investigation, as well as any others U.S. intelligence points to as having a role in Russia’s production and use of Novichok agents. In addition, the United States should further restrict the export of dual-use chemical and biological materials and technologies to Russia. 

The United States can strengthen the impact of these measures by working with other members of the Australia Group and the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, informal groups of countries dedicated, respectively, to preventing the spread of chemical weapons and enforcing international norms against their use. These bodies can raise awareness of Russia’s chemical weapons program, stymie its progress by strengthening global trade controls on sensitive items that the program could use, and promote the enforcement of sanctions.

Preventing the proliferation and use of chemical weapons has had bipartisan support in the United States for more than 30 years. President Ronald Reagan called for a global ban on chemical weapons in 1984. The George H.W. Bush administration oversaw most of the negotiations that resulted in the CWC, and the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty at the urging of President Bill Clinton. President Barack Obama brokered a deal that resulted in the elimination of Syria’s declared chemical weapon stockpile and production infrastructure. President Donald Trump enforced the CWC’s prohibitions by striking Syria twice for using against its own people chemical weapons that it had hidden from international inspectors. 

The outgoing administration should impose appropriate sanctions right away to send a clear message to the Kremlin that the entire U.S. leadership considers Moscow’s actions to be unconscionable. Only a unified response at home and solidarity with our allies abroad will be able to match the brazenness of Russia’s violations of international law and norms against these barbaric weapons.

Gregory D. Koblentz is director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a member of the Scientists Working Group on Chemical and Biological Security at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. 

Andrea Stricker is a research fellow focusing on nonproliferation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.