Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 143

Norway’s largest newspaper, the “Verdens Gang,” made quite a splash two weeks ago when it claimed that the Russian Navy had been operating a secret chemical weapons plant near Murmansk for more than fifteen years. The paper even published a picture of this facility and warned that an accident at this plant could cause “an environmental catastrophe in the Nordic region.” Murmansk is just over 100 kilometers from the Norwegian border. Were the charge true–and it is very doubtful that it is-the repercussions would be serious. Russia would be unmasked as a violator of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention for not revealing the location and status of the Murmansk site. The expose triggered a series of Norwegian demands for explanations, followed by Russian denials. Some of the latter were less than comforting. Unnamed officials of the Northern Fleet, for example, denied that the navy possessed any chemical weapons in the region but did not rule out the possibility that the suspect facility might belong “to some other security structure.”

There is little in the public domain about the Soviet/Russian navy’s chemical weapons capabilities. Because the Soviet navy placed great emphasis on the means to protect its ships and their crews against nuclear, chemical or biological attack some analysts in the West assumed that this meant that the Soviets had also armed some of their ships with chemical weapons. While the Russians have identified seven sites where either chemical agents or loaded chemical weapons are stored, none contain naval weapons. Two of the sites hold bulk chemical agents while two hold army weapons and the other three have stockpiles of air force chemical munitions. Chemical weapons are not particularly suited for combat at sea. The procedures and equipment used to “button up” a ship in the event of a nuclear explosion would also protect the crew against a chemical attack while the wind and waves which are such constant factors of the maritime environment would make it very difficult to deliver chemical weapons accurately on a naval target. Ship-launched land-attack cruise missiles might be armed with chemical warheads, but the logistics and safety problems which these weapons would create aboard the launching ship would seem to far outweigh their dubious military effectiveness. The facility identified by the “Verdens Gang” could well be connected with naval missiles: There are stacks of missile-shaped objects–perhaps empty missile canisters–visible in the published picture. There remains only the paper’s word that the facility is in any way connected with chemical weapons.

No one has come forward to corroborate the “Verdens Gang” charges. While the Norwegian environmental group Bellona said at first that it had heard rumors about such a site on the Kola Peninsula, it later formally repudiated the newspaper’s claim. The Russian Foreign Ministry and the chief of the military’s radiation, chemical and biological protection service–Colonel General Stanislav Petrov–were quick to dismiss the charges. Russian navy spokesmen were as well. Petrov also noted that if the Norwegian government believed the “Verdens Gang” story it could always request a challenge inspection of the Murmansk site through the organization which administers the chemical weapons convention (Russian and international media, July 15-21).