The Economist explains

Could Russia use chemical weapons in Ukraine?

The White House warns that Vladimir Putin may resort to his tools of mass destruction

IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 08: Demonstrators draw picture on a wall that describe the poisonous gas attack as they gather to protest against Assad regime forces' allegedly conducted poisonous gas attack to Duma town of Eastern Ghouta, in Kafranbel town of Idlib, Syria on April 08, 2018. (Photo by Muhammed es Sami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

VLADIMIR PUTIN has rocketed Kyiv, shelled Kharkiv and bombed a maternity hospital in Mariupol in his quixotic and blood-soaked effort to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Some think he may soon resort to worse. “[W]e should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false-]flag operation using them,” warned Jen Psaki, the White House spokeswoman, on March 9th. “I’ll make you one other prediction,” noted Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, a day later. “The stuff that you are hearing about chemical weapons…is straight out of their playbook.”

These warnings came after Russia’s foreign ministry accused Ukraine of operating American-backed chemical- and biological-weapons laboratories—the latest of many such spurious allegations. On December 21st Sergei Shoigu, Mr Putin’s defence minister, warned that 120 American mercenaries were in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and that tanks of chemicals had been delivered there “to commit provocations”. On March 3rd Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, claimed that the Pentagon was worried about losing control of chemical and biological facilities in Ukraine. A week later Russia’s defence ministry said that labs in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odessa were exploring how to use birds and bats to spread pathogens.

These claims are nonsense. The Pentagon does not have such facilities in Ukraine, though America’s government does provide assistance to the country in safeguarding legitimate civilian biological laboratories. Nor is Ukraine creating weaponised bats. Russia’s government, and its machinery of disinformation, has spread false claims about such labs in post-Soviet countries, such as Georgia, for years. Part of its motivation is to muddy the waters and distract from its own involvement with chemical weapons.

In 2013 Syria’s government used sarin gas on opposition-controlled areas in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus, killing over 1,400 people. Sarin is a type of nerve agent: a chemical that disrupts the messages sent from nerves to other parts of the body, causing paralysis and the loss of bodily functions. More than 300 other chemical attacks—mostly with chlorine, a less sophisticated chemical used in the first world war—occurred during Syria’s civil war. Russia, which intervened to prop up Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, in 2015, insisted that those attacks were either perpetrated by opposition fighters or “staged” by Western intelligence, as Mr Lavrov said of one incident.

Russia has also used chemical weapons itself. In 2018 Unit 29155, a branch of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, used Novichok, an especially potent family of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union, to poison Sergei Skripal, a former GRU officer who spied for Britain. The attack on Mr Skripal was unsuccessful, but a member of the public who picked up discarded Novichok later died. Then in 2020 Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition politician, was poisoned with Novichok, probably on a flight to Moscow. Mr Navalny, since imprisoned, has led domestic opposition to the war in Ukraine. In Ukraine itself, Victor Yushchenko, a pro-Western former president, was poisoned with dioxin, a toxic chemical, during elections in 2004.

That the Kremlin is ramping up its disinformation around chemical weapons now, as Russia’s effort to encircle Kyiv is faltering, is concerning. On March 9th the State Department said that Russian warnings were “an obvious ploy by Russia to try to justify further premeditated, unprovoked and unjustified attacks on Ukraine”. Many Western officials think that Mr Putin might go as far as to use chemical weapons and falsely claim that Ukraine had done so. Mr Johnson claimed that Russia’s warnings were made “so when they themselves deploy chemical weapons, as I fear they may, they have…a fake story ready to go.” The aim would be either to terrorise and subjugate the civilian population, who remain defiant in Russian-occupied cities, or to justify a military escalation, such as heavier bombardment of urban areas.

How Russia might do this is unclear. Chemical weapons are not terribly effective as military instruments. They are unpredictable in their effects and expensive in comparison with other weapons. “Shell for shell, modern conventional weapons are on average more lethal and decisive,” says Dan Kaszeta, a former member of the US Army’s Chemical Corps and author of “Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents, from Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia”. There are few examples where chemical weapons made a difference to the outcome on the battlefield, he says, and in most instances the weapons also affected the troops using them, through accidents or changes in weather.

The weapons are illegal under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Russia joined in 1997, though designated facilities can produce small amounts of research for “protective” purposes. An industrial-scale programme to produce chemical agents and the munitions to carry them would be unlikely to remain hidden. “Some lab can make a vial or a jug of this stuff, but that’s a world of difference than equipping artillery battalions to fire lots of shells,” says Mr Kaszeta. But as the attacks on Messrs Skripal and Navalny showed, Russian spooks have indeed been brewing their own batches on a limited scale.

An investigation by Bellingcat, an investigative group, and other news outlets in 2020 discovered evidence that Russia had continued its illegal Novichok programme long after it was officially closed, with scientists quietly spread across a “clandestine” research and development programme, some of it disguised as research into the effects of organophosphates, which are used in insecticides and herbicides. The Economist understands that Unit 29155 of the GRU remains closely involved with these programmes, and that they include chemicals other than Novichok.

Russia’s attitude towards chemical weapons is “one in which they accept their use in warfare”, says Jeffrey Edmonds, who oversaw Russia policy at the National Security Council during the Obama administration and is now a researcher at CNA, a think-tank. “The stakes for Putin are existential,” says Mr Edmonds, “and if that’s one more tool he can throw at this thing he will.”

Chemical weapons have not been used on the battlefield in Europe since Britain employed them over a century ago in 1919, ironically during the Russian civil war (allegations of their use in the Balkan wars remain unproven). If Mr Putin were to cross that threshold again, Western leaders could face greater pressure to act. In 2018 America, Britain and France launched air strikes on Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons; that option is not on the table today. America and its European allies have sent huge quantities of arms to Ukraine, but they have ruled out direct military intervention, such as the establishment of a no-fly zone, on the basis that it would carry an unacceptable risk of escalation. Mr Putin may have less compunction about raising the stakes.

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