Does Russia have chemical warfare capability?

The short answer: Probably not.

The long answer: Russia signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1993. In 1997 the treaty came into force. Russia declared its chemical warfare stocks of 39,967 tons and then began destroying them. This destruction was partially funded and overwatched by Western nations. In late 2017, they destroyed the last of their weapons. At that point in time, they clearly effectively had no chemical warfare capability. This was done under an extensive inspection and overwatch regime that had access to Russian facilities and was assisted by intelligence assets, including multiple defectors. There is no question that as of the end of 2017, Russia did not have a chemical warfare capability, although one cannot rule out someone hid away a few Petri dishes (which does appear to be the case). 

But don’t take my word for it. To quote an expert (see: Ukraine war: What chemical and biological weapons could Russia have-and what has it used before?)

“But Dr Edwards says that Russia being a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) means it does not have the capacity to launch chemical attacks like the ones seen in Syria.

“The CWC is the most intrusive and successful disarmament convention we have,” he tells Sky News.

“Because of its collaboration with the CWC, Russia is subject to on-site inspections and investigations.

“So we know they don’t have major stocks, because they’ve either been destroyed or are in the process of being destroyed.”

Dr Edwards also claims there would be more widely-available intelligence if such weapons were being mobilised in Ukraine.

“We’d see it in the intelligence, it’s a whole infrastructure, so we’d see specialist units moving it all – which we haven’t.”

But he says Russia could be producing chemical weapons on a smaller scale.

“The smaller use of weapons – akin to terrorism – is more likely,” he explains.

“The CWC can’t capture smaller, clandestine production. And we have good reason to assume there is small-scale production of nerve agents in Russia – but that doesn’t have any relationship with the tonnes needed for chemical warfare.

“It’s nowhere near on the scale the West has been talking about.”

Anyhow, for Russia to have any significant chemical warfare capability, it would have to had to clandestinely rebuilt something in the last four years. This would require time, effort, money, and equipment. Certainly most of their gear is over two decades old and has not been maintained. Some of their conventional warfare gear they are deploying now in Ukraine has not been all that well maintained. Their ally, Syria, has maintained some chemical warfare capability, but it is very debatable that they have a whole lot to share with Russia. They could certainly borrow a couple of bombs, but this is hardly a chemical warfare capability. The negative impact of any such use would not justify their limited use.

This subject has been all over the news the last few days, with Russia making false allegations of Ukrainian bioweapon labs and then lots of chatter since then about what Russia might do. But, when it comes to chemical weapons, they do not really have anything. The fact that the locally manufactured nerve agent Novichok was used multiple times for assassination attempts has reinforced this assumption that Russia has a chemical warfare capability. These were scattered attempts over time using limited portions (Ivan Kivelidi (fatal) and Zara Ismailova (fatal) in 1995, Emilian Gebrev (fatal) in 2015, Sergie and Yulia Skripal in 2018 and Charlei Rowley and Dawn Sturgess (fatal) in 2018 from the same attempt, and Alexei Navalny in 2020). It is a case of adding 2 + 2 and getting to 100.

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Christopher A. Lawrence
Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience.
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Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
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His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024).
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Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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