BERLIN – The US and UK have warned that Russia may use chemical weapons in Ukraine. The use of the banned weapons would represent a significant escalation of Russia’s war on its neighbour, which has involved increasingly indiscriminate use of weapons with a mounting civilian death toll.
“We are very concerned about [Russia’s] potential use of chemical weapons,” Liz Truss, the UK Foreign Secretary, said on 10 March. “We have seen Russia use these weapons before in fields of conflict, but that would be a grave mistake on the part of Russia, adding to the grave mistakes already being made by [the Russian president, Vladimir] Putin.”
Truss’s warning came after the US rubbished Russian accusations that American-run biological weapons labs were operating in Ukraine. Russia has called a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the claims, which Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, called “preposterous”.
The US and UK have said before that Russia accuses its enemies of violations of international law and human rights that it is itself planning. “Now that Russia has made these false claims… we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine,” Psaki wrote on Twitter.
Russia has also accused Ukraine of wanting to develop nuclear weapons and so-called dirty bombs. Ukrainian intelligence reportedly believes that Putin has ordered his forces to stage an attack or accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in order to blame Ukraine for a nuclear disaster. Chernobyl was the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history in 1986.
The strategy of attempting to “pre-bunk” Russia’s actions by declassifying intelligence assessments about the actions that Moscow may be considering fits with the West’s previous strategy. Before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the US and UK had stridently warned for months that Russia was preparing an attack, removing Moscow’s element of surprise and deniability when the assault finally came.
“If you are looking for a rapid way of trying to break morale – especially in urban areas – then there is a perverse logic to the use of chemical weapons,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services. “The trouble now is that the notion of ‘oh, surely Putin wouldn’t do that’ doesn’t ring as confidently as once it did.”
Russia, which intervened to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian civil war, has previously accused anti-Assad rebels of using chemical weapons. In fact, the Assad regime is widely seen as one of the worst violators of international bans on the use of such weapons. Over 300 chemical weapon attacks had been recorded in the course of the conflict, a 2019 study by the Global Public Policy Institute said, with responsibility for the vast majority – including one that is estimated to have killed more than 1,400 people in 2013 – ascribed to Assad’s forces. Russia continues to deny that the Syrian regime, its ally, has ever used chemical weapons.
Some Western officials have warned that the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine would be a “red line”. Yet quite what action the West would be willing or able to take in response is far from clear. There is little appetite in Nato capitals for direct engagement with Russian forces, which could spiral into a far wider conflict. The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime was also termed a “red line” in 2012 by Barack Obama, the then US president. In the end, he was unable to muster a coalition of allies to punish the Assad regime for its blatant use of chemical weapons, which continued.
Russia will remember how the US and its allies decided against punishing Syria, a far weaker regime. If Putin uses chemical weapons or stages an accident at a Ukrainian nuclear power plant, it will be because he has calculated that the West and Nato will hold back from military retaliation, despite the immense stakes. He may well be right.
[See also: What is Vladimir Putin’s way out in Ukraine?]