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Not so funny anymore. Why chemical weapons sanctions will hit the Kremlin harder than it cares to admit

Following a fresh dose of Western sanctions Russia's propagandists made plenty of fun of the helplessness of the United States and Europe. Alexander Golts considers it unlikely that the measures taken by Washington and Brussels after the poisoning of Alexey Navalny, will force the Kremlin to change its policy. Meanwhile it is obvious that the United States has firmly set out to strip Russia of the resources it needs for the implementation of its military programs, primarily the production and use of chemical weapons.

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The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and Their Destruction, signed almost thirty years ago, was considered one of the most important steps towards disarmament. The West actively worked with Russia to get rid of huge stockpiles of toxic substances, believing it would forever end the history of this class of weapons of mass destruction. Hence why the attempted poisoning of the ex-GRU officer Skripal and his daughter in Britain was so shocking.

The Navalny poisoning confirmed that Russia had been actively working on military-grade nerve agents in direct violation of its essential obligations, which, in principle, calls into question the existing system of international security. So, the sanctions are not so much aimed at punishing Moscow for persecuting one of its citizens, but rather an attempt at preventing further violation of the chemical weapons convention.

Individual sanctions were introduced not only against FSB head Alexander Bortnikov, FSIN head Alexander Kalashnikov, Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov, deputy head of the presidential administration Sergei Kiriyenko and head of the presidential administration's internal policy directorate Andrei Yarin, who had their hands in persecuting Navalny, but also against deputy defense ministers Alexei Krivoruchko and Pavel Popov. The former is responsible for the implementation of the government's defense order, the latter for the agency's research work. Thus, the United States undoubtedly thinks Russia has been creating chemical weapons for military use.

The United States undoubtedly thinks Russia has been creating chemical weapons for military use

More importantly, among the 14 firms and research institutions on the US sanctions list, there are six Ministry of Defense research centers: the 33rd Central Research Institute (located in Shikhany, where the nerve agent Novichok, used in the Navalny poisoning, was created); the Defense Ministry's 27th Research Center which provided toxicology experts; as well as the 48th Central Research Institute and two of its branches.

Essentially, the verdict is that Russia's defense ministry's research in chemistry and also in microbiology is in violation of Russia's international obligations. In fact, the sanctions not only prohibit the direct purchase of any materials or equipment by those research centers; the mere suspicion that they may use shell companies or intermediaries will inevitably trigger a thorough investigation. This means that any reputable company will think twice before entering into any form of contract with Russian firms in the field of chemistry or biology. The sanctions also targeted three German and one Swiss companies. In reality, their offices are headed by native Russians and were used for buying all kinds of measuring equipment used in chemical production. In this way the United States is seeking to prevent the manufacture of chemical weapons.

Any reputable company will think twice before entering into any form of contract with Russian firms in the field of chemistry or biology

The most significant, however, are the sanctions imposed by Washington under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control Act 1991:

  • Cessation of financial assistance
  • Cessation of arms exports from the United States
  • Cessation of finance for arms purchases from Russia by third countries
  • Denial of US government loans
  • Prohibition on exports of any goods and technologies to Russia which are sensitive from the perspective of US national security

Moscow immediately tried to portray these sanctions as insignificant by insisting that Russia has had no need for US financial aid for a long time. The Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation was quick to declare that «the new US sanctions against our country, in this particular case in relation to arms exports, are baffling since there have been no arms deliveries from the United States to Russia, nor have any such deliveries been planned». It was ironically pointed out that the last delivery of military equipment from the United States to Russia was under the Lend-Lease program, and it was President Harry Truman who announced its completion on August 21,1945.

This is not entirely true. Russian Customs reports have secret lines used for the import-export of weapons and raw materials of strategic importance. In 2020, secret imports from the United States amounted to as much as $4 billion. Experts believe most of these exports were civil aircraft, but it is possible Russia bought other important strategic goods from the United States. And now Moscow will no longer be able to acquire them. Washington also explicitly banned the sale of any technology related to national security.

In 2020, secret imports from the United States amounted to as much as $4 billion

Meanwhile, the previous sanctions relating to Russia's intervention in Ukraine have cut off the supply of composite materials and seriously hampered the implementation of Russia's key civil aircraft construction project - the manufacture of the MC-21 single-aisle airliner. As the first Cold War showed, almost any technology or product can be dubbed as «sensitive from the US national security perspective». For about half a century, from 1949 to 1994, the Export Control Coordination Committee was in operation. With its help, the West tried to prevent the export of technologies capable of strengthening the USSR's military potential. In reality, supplies of almost all modern technologies were prohibited. So, one of the most serious violations of the regimen was the sale of eight milling machines equipped with computer systems.

The sanctions also prohibit the export of Russian arms and defense technologies to the United States, as well as the financing of such exports to third countries. Notably, Russia's secret exports to the United States are also quite significant. Last year, they amounted to $900 million. By imposing sanctions, the Biden administration did a double take and excluded space cooperation with Russia, which means regular sales of RD-180 and RD-181 space rocket engines and payments for satellite orbital launches. However, the volume of such sales is significantly less than $900 million. It is highly likely that supplies of low-enriched uranium to the United States, account for a significant part of this sum.

Russia covers about 20% of the needs of US nuclear power plants. Until recently, domestic analysts confidently reported that the United States cannot do without Russian uranium, but it is unclear how such sales will take place under the new sanctions. It does not seem coincidental that a few days ago Russia announced its withdrawal from the agreement on the disposal of weapons-grade uranium (which launched Russia's supplies of radioactive materials to the United States), although the agreement itself expired in 2013. As for the financing by the United States of Russia's arms exports to third countries, such a possibility was not merely theoretical until 2014. At one point Washington was financing the sale of Russian helicopters to the Afghan government.

Thus, the imposed sanctions are by no means symbolic. Most importantly, they have established a procedure for implementing measures against a country that has violated the Chemical Weapons Convention. So far, the first, preventive, package has been brought into action. The US law requires that within three months after its introduction the state which has been recognized as a violator accepts the charges, stops using chemical weapons, guarantees its refusal to use poisonous substances and allows inspections on its territory.

Judging by the list of sanctioned research institutes, the Americans know where to look and what to look for. The statements of Russian officials, who strongly deny the use of poison against Navalny, make it inevitable that a second sanctions package will be put into effect, which is much tougher than the one already introduced:

  • Completely banning the provision of loans by US banks to any agencies of the offending state
  • Banning exports and imports from and to the offending country of any goods or services other than food
  • Banning any aircraft operated by the state airlines of the offending country from landing in the US
  • Recalling the ambassador or even suspending diplomatic relations
  • Denying financial support to the country from international banking institutions

At the same time, the term «US bank» as used in the law has an extremely broad interpretation: it may refer to virtually any financial institution, including stock exchanges and investment companies. Bloomberg has already reported that the US and the UK are actively discussing sanctions in respect of Russian government debt. This is actually a declaration of a trade war. Its goal is clear – to prevent the creation and manufacture of chemical weapons.

But this is not all. The Biden administration has promised to introduce a further two packages of sanctions soon. The first is in response to the unprecedented breach of US government agencies' networks and databases. It can be assumed that severe restrictions on the sale of software products will be introduced, which will cut our country off from any advancements in cyber technologies. The second is a possible response to Moscow's alleged attempts to offer rewards to the Taliban for the lives of American soldiers. It is likely organizations comparable to the Cold War committees will appear in the very near future, whose goal will be to cut off Russia from finance and technology.

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