The Russian town of Pochep is home to a massive stockpile of chemical weapons, some decades old. Too dangerous to move, Germany is helping build a facility in the town which will destroy the arsenal.
Russia has the world's largest chemical weapons arsenal
The human toll caused by chemical warfare has been well documented in conflicts such as World War I, Vietnam and the Iran-Iraq war. The dangerous weapons have been outlawed since 1997, when the multilateral Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) entered into force.
Strict timelines have since been set for destroying existing chemical weapons. The 2012 deadline is fast approaching for countries such as Russia, which began construction Tuesday, June 10 on a new facility that will dispose of the chemical weapons.
Relying on German help
World leaders signalled their support at the G8 in 2002
By 2012, about 7,500 tons of nerve gas -- Sarin, Soman and VX -- will have been destroyed in the western Russian city of Pochep. The facility in Pochep, which will be up and running in 2009, is the last of seven to be constructed in Russia, which has the largest chemical weapons arsenal in the world. The country faces the daunting task of disposing of 40,000 tons of chemical weapons, one quarter of that has already been destroyed, according to Valeriy Kapashin, the head of the Moscow directorate that oversees the destruction of chemical weapons.
The facility in Pochep is being built by a German company and is getting German government support to the tune of 140 million euros ($218 million). Germany's Federal Office of Defense Technology and Procurement, which has helped Russia over the years with its chemical disarmament, will also provide technical support for the new facility.
The real push to get rid of chemical weapons came at a Group of Eight (G8) summit in Kananaskis, Canada in 2002. Leaders of the world's most powerful countries said they wanted to form a “global partnership against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” To do this, G8 members promised to set aside $20 billion over the next 10 years to destroy chemical weapons, dismantle decommissioned nuclear submarines and dispose of fissile material. Germany committed $1.5 billion to the project.
Fear of public protests
Agent Orange causes cancer and birth deformities
Russia has sought to destroy the chemical weapons in the places where they were stored, as transporting the weapons is expensive and risky, said Stephan Robinson from the organization Green Cross. Some of the oldest chemical weapons have been around for six decades and can't be transported without considerable risk, Robinson said.
Green Cross has been very active in Russia with regional offices located in areas where chemical weapons were produced. Green Cross acts as a go-between for the government and residents of the area. Residents are often not happy to learn that chemical weapons have been stored next door for years and will now be destroyed, Robinson said.
Green Cross gets 1.5 million euros each year from western countries. The group's job is to “create an atmosphere that makes chemical weapons destruction at all possible,” Robinson said.
“When you don't work with the communities, you risk bad investments in the billions range. You can have a completed facility that is operational but because of public protests can't work.”
Only a few Middle Eastern countries are holdouts
While countries have refused to give up their nuclear weapons, they seem ready to do away with their chemical weapons arsenals.
“With the advent of the atomic bomb, chemical weapons became a very dull knife,” said Robinson.
Nevertheless, a handful of countries have refused to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. Egypt, Israel and Syria are holdouts, although the first two seem ready to negotiate over the topic. Syria is refusing to talk, Robinson said. Yet he is still pleased about how well most Middle East countries have done in getting rid of their chemical weapons.
If the current agreement to rid the world of chemical weapons succeeds, it would be the first time a government had successfully eliminated a system of weapons of mass destruction.
Military spending marches on
The positive outlook for ridding the world of chemical weapons stands in stark contrast to overall military spending. Globally, military spending grew 45 percent in the past decade, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said Monday.
Military spending grew six percent in 2007 year alone, according to SIPRI's annual report. In 2007, 1.3 trillion dollars (851 billion euros) was spent on arms and other military expenditure, with the United States spending by far the most.