BACKGROUND: The CWC prohibits the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, and use of offensive chemical weapons. Many of the Central Asia and South Caucasus states have found meeting their CWC obligations challenging. They have not executed or enforced all their national implementation requirements, are situated along prime CW trafficking routes between Russia and the Middle East, and find themselves torn between their desire to exchange chemical technologies and their fear of contributing to CW proliferation through lax export controls. Thanks to globalization, these countries are experiencing rapid growth in their commercial chemistry industries, which taxes their national safety and security regulations and capabilities. These were rapidly developed in the 1990s and are designed to manage twentieth-century chemical threats, before the advent of global supply chains, micro reactors, and biochemistry.
Most of the former Soviet Union chemical weapons infrastructure was located in Russia or Ukraine, but a few chemical facilities were built and operated in other parts of the USSR, often as dual-use facilities with civilian components designed to conceal their military activities. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the newly independent states of the South Caucasus and Central Asia destroyed some of these plants and tried to convert others into purely commercial enterprises. Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan housed Soviet CW facilities that have since been shut down. A single CW facility in Kazakhstan was shuttered in 1987, before its construction was completed and before any CW could be produced. It took Uzbekistan until 1999 to come to a bilateral agreement with the U.S. to dismantle its Soviet-era CW facility, a project completed in 2002. Armenia was quicker to address its inherited CW, signing an agreement to return its stocks to Russia in 1992. The U.S. has been working with many Eurasian governments, under various programs, to hinder the smuggling of CW and other WMD-related items through their porous borders.
These countries all encountered difficulties in converting their dual-use chemical industry into purely commercial ventures. The post-Soviet economies have struggled with weak currencies, high inflation, low national incomes, limited entrepreneurial skills among local managers, poor law enforcement, flimsy intellectual property protection, and upheavals in potential foreign markets. It has only been in the last decade that rising global commodity prices and other benign developments have created more favorable conditions for their national ambitions to become leading global chemical producers, using latest-generation technologies and processes that complicate national and international monitoring and verification regimes.
IMPLICATIONS: In eliminating their chemical weapons and other WMD stockpiles, many of the former Soviet republics required and received considerable foreign assistance. The U.S. provided substantial help under its Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR, also known as Nunn-Lugar, after its two main Senate sponsors), the U.S. Export Control and Related Border Security (EXBS) Program, and other initiatives. These funds supported chemical weapons elimination programs as well as projects to strengthen border security against WMD trafficking. For example, the U.S. government made strengthening the porous borders of the South Caucasus, and strengthening maritime security in the Caspian Sea region, priorities of its CW nonproliferation efforts. European governments and Russia have also provided financial and technical assistance to strengthen regional border and export controls and tighten the physical safety and security of WMD-related materials and technologies. Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Georgia, though they do not possess CW, are still among the most highly trafficked smuggling routes in the region.
Other aid came through the G-8 Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, launched at the 2002 G-8 summit. Despite some tensions over U.S. activities in the former Soviet Union, including recent Russian accusations that Washington is supporting a biological weapons laboratory in Tbilisi, Russia and the U.S. have also undertaken several special joint projects to remove insecure WMD material from several former Soviet republics to safer locations in Russia, the U.S., or elsewhere. Although the narrower Framework Agreement on a Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Program in the Russian Federation (MNEPR) that replaced the CTR framework earlier this year has decreased joint WMD elimination activities in Russia, Washington and Moscow have pledged to cooperate against WMD threats in third countries.
This continued assistance will be needed as the Central Asia and South Caucasus countries still face major WMD threats, not least related to the so-called frozen conflicts in the breakaway regions of Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh. For decades these separatist regions have operated beyond the law enforcement and other agencies of their national governments. As a result, these ungoverned spaces have become a magnet for terrorists and criminals who, among other malign activities, have engaged in WMD trafficking, with several instances of extremely dangerous nuclear materials being offered for sale in the South Caucasus. Trafficked chemical weapons are likely to come from the same source: the massive WMD stockpile Russia inherited following the Soviet collapse. Although the safety and security of Russia’s chemical weapons have improved, and some three-fourths of the original stockpile has been eliminated, the large volume and opportunities to find corrupt insider collaborators are too great to rule out further Russian WMD leakage through the South Caucasus or other regions.
The chemical weapons threat in Central Asia has been less than that presented by the former Soviet nuclear and biological weapons activities in this region, which ruined local environments and whose consequences have been enormously expensive to eliminate. But Central Asia has been highly penetrated by narcotics traffickers who convey Afghan-made opium products through several routes that traverse the region as they move illegal drugs to China, Russia, and Europe. These could easily serve as transportation routes for chemical weapons. The deterioration in Afghanistan’s security that could ensue following the withdrawal of most NATO combat troops from that country in late 2014 would worsen this problem, since neither of the two main multinational security institutions active in Central Asia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has made countering WMD trafficking a priority.
Both Central Asia and the South Caucasus have seen their chemical industries grow in size and sophistication since the end of the Soviet Union. Although this trend should be welcome for many reasons, including the jobs these industries bring and the fillip they can give to the regions’ economic development, national regulators find it challenging to expand the scope and improve the quality of their safety and security measures, which were adopted at the time the states became independent and when their chemical sectors were rudimentary. Modern chemical plants can easily be converted from producing commercial chemicals to manufacturing weapons-grade agents. Even unsophisticated chlorine plants can become mass destruction weapons if they are set ablaze. Trains and other vehicles transporting chlorine can also be attacked. In Iraq, the insurgents laced conventional bombs with chlorine to increase their shock effect and complicate defusing. More modern chemical plants can be misused to create more deadly weapons. If Central Asian and South Caucasus governments succeed in developing biotechnology and nanotechnology, these new capabilities would present even more serious proliferation challenges since they could be used to create new forms of deadly biotoxins and miniaturized CW delivery systems.
CONCLUSION: The OPCW's Nobel Prize has highlighted the value of that organization and the CWC that it administers. But they will both need more support from their member states to counter the threats of chemical weapons proliferation and use that, while most common in the Middle East, could also increase in the South Caucasus and Central Asia due to the security challenges and economic developments in both regions. It is especially important that the local governments and private sector actors developing new scientific and technological industries in these regions receive adequate foreign technical assistance as well as pressure to upgrade their safety and security procedures to prevent these highly sophisticated capabilities from being misused for making weapons rather than pursuing peaceful scientific or commercial endeavors.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.