There are increasing concerns that Russia could be prepared to use chemical weapons to attack Ukraine, with Western officials and strategists warning the threat posed by Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin in this regard is credible and serious.
In the last week, Russia itself has accused Ukraine of operating chemical and biological weapons laboratories backed by the U.S. The claims were roundly rebuffed by Ukrainian and Western officials, with the U.S. describing them as “outright lies.” But they have caused alarm nonetheless, with many officials seeing them as Russia inventing and building a false narrative and pretext for using its own chemical weapons against Ukraine, a prospect described as “horrific” by the U.S.
“Russia has a track record of accusing the West of the very crimes that Russia itself is perpetrating. These tactics are an obvious ploy by Russia to try to justify further premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attacks on Ukraine,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement last week.
“The United States does not own or operate any chemical or biological laboratories in Ukraine … It is Russia that has active chemical and biological weapons programs and is in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention,” he added.
President Joe Biden warned Friday that there would be a “severe price” to pay if Russia used chemical weapons in Ukraine and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Sunday that such a move would be a war crime.
“Now that these false claims have been made, we must remain vigilant because it is possible that Russia itself could plan chemical weapons operations under this fabrication of lies,” Stoltenberg told the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag.
CNBC has contacted Russia’s foreign ministry for a response to the U.S. and NATO’s comments.
While the West has been united in its condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the U.K. describing Putin’s regime as “barbaric,” just how far the U.S. and its NATO allies are willing to go to support Ukraine, and stop Russia, is a moot point. NATO has repeatedly ruled out any kind of military support, such as a no-fly zone pleaded for by Ukraine, that could lead it into a direct confrontation with nuclear power Russia.
But Poland’s President Andrzej Duda said in an interview Sunday that the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine by Russia could change the West’s calculus over the conflict.
“Of course, everybody hopes that he would not dare do that but … if he uses any weapons of mass destruction then this will be a game changer in the whole thing,” he told the BBC’s Sophie Raworth Sunday, adding that NATO would have to “think seriously what to do because then it starts to be dangerous not only for Europe … but the whole world.”
With his almost internationally condemned invasion of Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24, Putin is seen as an increasingly unpredictable leader. With Russia facing far more resistance than it expected to face in Ukraine, and appearing to prepare to attack the capital Kyiv, there are fears that Putin could resort to using unconventional — and outlawed — weapons.
Duda said that Putin had already lost the war politically, and was losing it militarily, and that made the Russian leader dangerous: “If you’re asking me whether Putin can use chemical weapons, I think Putin can use anything right now, especially when he’s in this difficult situation,” he told the BBC.
While fears are heightened that Russia could resort to using chemical weapons in Ukraine, it’s important to remember that there is nothing to suggest their use is imminent.
On Friday, Reuters published a briefing by unnamed Western officials who noted that Russia might use chemical weapons in Ukraine in a “false flag” attack to provide a retrospective justification for its invasion, but there is nothing to suggest a broader use of such weapons in the war.
In the Reuters report, the officials said that “clearly, whilst the Russians are highly likely to have a chemical weapons capability, there is nothing to suggest that they intend to use [them] at this point in a major escalation of the current conflict.”
Nonetheless, Russia has been accused of using chemical weapons before, both on individuals seen as outspoken critics of Putin, and on a wider level was allegedly complicit in their use in the Syrian civil war.
A chemical weapon is defined by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons as a chemical used to cause intentional death or harm through its toxic properties.
The OPCW’s mission is to implement the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention, an arms control treaty signed by 193 countries (including Russia) in 1997 which prohibits the production and use of chemical weapons. It also saw signatories commit to destroying chemical weapons production facilities and stockpiles of such weapons.
Putin said in late 2017 that Russia had completed the destruction of its last chemical weapons (and he chided the U.S. for not yet doing so) but the poisoning of former Russian spy (and double agent) Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the U.K. in 2018 with a Novichok nerve agent (developed by the Soviet Union) and the poisoning of Putin critic and opposition politician Alexei Navalny in 2020 have suggested Russia has maintained an illicit chemical weapons program.