Warnings from various Western leaders about the possible use of chemical weapons in the war in Ukraine have occurred in recent days. The rhetoric from the Kremlin, added to the enormous difficulties that the Russian Army is having in taking control of urban centers, worries NATO. There is no evidence that the Russian Armed Forces have ever used chemical substances to attack a civilian population, although the Syrian regime, which it has protected with a decisive military intervention since 2015, has used them on multiple occasions in the last decade. Officially, Moscow finished destroying almost five years ago the entire chemical and biological arsenal inherited from the Soviet Union.
On the 11th, Vasili Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, accused the United States and Ukraine of having been trying to develop biological weapons in Ukrainian laboratories. “The objective was to study the possibility of spreading plague, anthrax and cholera pathogens through birds, bats and people,” said the diplomat. In the days that followed, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and Polish President Andrzej Duda warned that Moscow’s unfounded accusations — “nonsense,” according to the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield—could serve as the basis for a chemical attack that they would try to camouflage as a false flag operation by attributing responsibility to the enemy Army. “It is a clear sign that [el mandatario ruso, Vladímir Putin] it is weighing the use of both (chemical and biological weapons),” said Joe Biden, the president of the United States.
Hanna Notte, a researcher at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, points out that in the event of a chemical attack, Russia’s responsibility would probably be demonstrable, but “it is not something that seems to worry the Kremlin, which would present a narrative radically different from its population.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stressed on Thursday that a Russian chemical attack on Ukraine would “greatly change the nature of the conflict.” Biden made ambiguous statements the same day in Brussels: “We will respond if he [Putin] uses them, and the nature of that response will depend on the nature of the use.” Notte believes that statements like Biden’s reflect that Western countries “do not have good options to deter Russia from using chemical weapons. With military intervention ruled out, they can only impose even harsher sanctions on Moscow and intensify its international isolation.”
In 2012, Barack Obama, then president of the United States, drew the red line of a military intervention in Syria in the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar al-Assad regime. A year later, hundreds of civilians suffocated to death after a sarin gas attack by the Syrian Army in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. The reaction announced by Obama never came. During the term of his successor, Donald Trump, there were two military responses to two chemical attacks, in 2017 by Jan Sheikhun and in 2018 – in coordination with Paris and London – by Duma, which were limited to the launch of missiles against alleged weapons development or storage centers. Those shells also did not alter the course of the war in Syria. “At a minimum, Russia turned a blind eye to Assad’s use of chemical weapons and did not urge him to stop,” notes Notte.
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Chemical weapons are prohibited by a treaty ratified by all UN members except Egypt, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan. There are different types of banned substances: some affect the respiratory system or blood circulation, others such as mustard gas burn the skin and blind people, while the most lethal are usually those that damage the nervous system. Dan Kaszeta, a research associate at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), sees Russia as unlikely to use chemical weapons in Ukraine. The expert believes that “historically they have not been very effective in achieving military objectives”; however, he does not rule out the use of conventional weapons against industrial plants that store toxic substances.
At the NATO meeting last Thursday, it was agreed to send Ukraine material to counteract a hypothetical chemical, biological or nuclear attack. Paul Walker, vice president of the Association for Arms Control and director of the international environmental organization Cruz Verde, explains that the instruments that allies can send to mitigate the effects of a chemical attack are “gas masks, gloves, hypodermic needles to inject atropine (an antidote) and, in the best of cases, individual protection suits”. Stoltenberg announced that he, too, had given himself the order to activate “the defenses [contra armamento químico, biológico y nuclear] of the forces deployed in the eastern countries of the Alliance”. Daniel Gerstein, a researcher at the RAND Corporation, details that the instruments the Norwegian was referring to include sensors and vehicles with the ability to identify and take environmental samples. Gerstein adds that tools for detecting biological attacks—in which a pathogen such as a virus, bacteria, or fungus is being spread—are more limited than those designed for chemical attacks.
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union created a gigantic biological weapons agency—called Biopreparat—that once had more than 30,000 workers. In January 1993, just 12 months after the dissolution of the USSR, Russia signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, which entered into force in 1997. Moscow declared then that it stored some 40,000 tons of weapons with substances made illegal after the ratification of the treaty. and promised its complete elimination.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) verified in October 2017 that Russia had destroyed its entire chemical arsenal. And the Kremlin launched its propaganda machine. In a televised ceremony, Putin, along with a representative of the OPCW, presented himself as a defender of peace and international legality and order, and criticized the United States for not yet having completely destroyed all its declared weapons.
A month later, Moscow vetoed in the Security Council the extension of the mandate of the body of experts responsible for determining responsibility for attacks with chemical weapons in Syria, a joint mechanism of the UN and the OPCW that had been launched in 2015 with the support of all powers.
In March 2018, less than half a year after the last OPCW inspection on Russian territory, Sergei Skripal, a former double agent in the service of British espionage, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in the English city of Salisbury with some compound of the novichok family, a group of Soviet-made nerve agents whose possession Russia has never admitted. Moscow categorically denied any connection to the event, but London accused the Kremlin and identified two Russian citizens as responsible. Skripal and his daughter survived after spending several weeks unconscious, but almost four months later a woman and a man were infected with the same substance through a perfume bottle that had been found in a park 13 kilometers from Salisbury; she died 10 days later.
Alexei Navalni, Putin’s main opponent, was also poisoned with novichok in August 2020. After being admitted to a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk, he was transferred to Berlin in an induced coma. Navalni returned to Moscow in January last year and was arrested upon landing for breaching the terms of his probation, imposed after the suspension of a prison sentence. Last Tuesday he was sentenced by a Moscow court to nine years in prison for “large-scale fraud.”
The Skripal and Navalni cases, however, were mere assassination attempts, not indiscriminate acts of war. There was one occasion when the Putin government authorized a larger-scale chemical attack, but it was in a critical situation that bears little relation to the scenario in Ukraine. In October 2002, during the second Chechen war, a commando of Caucasian terrorists locked themselves in a Moscow theater with 850 hostages. Three days later, minutes before the special forces stormed the compound, a chemical (which was never made clear) was pumped through the ventilation system in order to anesthetize the kidnappers. At least 130 civilians died from gas inhalation.
In the war in Ukraine, in which the population of the cities besieged by the invading troops, such as Mariupol or Chernigov, are resisting the continuous bombardments without gas or electricity and with hardly any water or food, Walker believes that chemical weapons could be effective as “a weapon of terror against civilians”. The expert emphasizes that citizens who resist in underground shelters, physically and psychologically exhausted, may feel relatively protected from the explosions and enemy artillery, but not from the gases that cause agonizing deaths.