Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has reminded the world that he is contemplating the use of nuclear weapons. Russia could also deploy chemical weapons in Ukraine as another option to pull the lever for weapons of mass destruction. Russia has used chemical weapons against Russian citizens who have run afoul of the regime.
A spate of poisonings looks suspicious. Moscow claims to have destroyed all of its chemical stocks (40,000 metric tons) in 2017. But it is believed Putin ordered intelligence personnel to poison defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018 and dissident Alexei Navalny in 2020 with the nerve agent Novichok.
Is Anyone Protected from Chemical Warfare?
Russia would use chemical weapons in Ukraine to shock Kyiv into surrendering. Ukrainian soldiers do not appear to carry nuclear, biological suits, chemical suits, gas masks, or other protective equipment. A chemical attack would be disastrous, and it would also kill, maim, and terrify civilians.
Complicit During Syrian Chemical Attacks
The Russian military served alongside the Syrian armed forces and stood by while the Syrians used chemical weapons, chlorine gas, and nerve agents against insurgent combatants and civilians. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), based in The Hague, Netherlands, determined this action in an investigation conducted in 2016. Moscow denied its complicity. Russia and Ukraine are signatories to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention that bans their use.
A Look at Different Chemicals
Russia could use chlorine gas against Ukrainian cities to cause panic, forcing Ukraine’s allies to react, which might mean the crossing of a red line. Sarin’s use would be deadly, although it dissipates rapidly. Novichok chemicals would endanger Russian troops if they wanted to seize territory where the attack occurred.
The False Flag Scenario
Russia may conduct a false flag operation in which they use a small volume of chemical weapons and blame the Ukrainians and the United States to justify further attacks against civilians and to escalate the war. Moscow could spread these bogus allegations for propaganda effect.
Huge Stocks During the Cold War
Russia claims that it stopped making chemical weapons in 1987. During the Soviet era. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) said Russia had “declared stockpile of nearly 40,000 metric tons of chemical nerve, blister and choking agents. According to some reports, the total stockpile exceeds 50,000 tons, with an additional 32,300 ton stockpile of phosphorus agents.”
Maybe Russia Did Not Destroy It All
This is a big supply, and it is plausible that Russia did not destroy all of its stocks. FAS believes that Russia had a wide variety of banned chemicals including about 80 percent nerve agents along with phosgene, sarin, and mustard gas plus several other dangerous agents.
No Fear to Escalate
One reason that Russia would utilize chemical weapons would be its frustration with the progress of the war. We know that Putin is capable of drastic measures such as re-calling 300,000 reservists to serve in Ukraine. Russia has bombarded civilians before. It has used deadly thermobaric weapons. The longer this war lasts, the greater the chance of Putin doing something that could turn the tide in Russia’s favor even though the Americans and NATO could respond militarily.
A Frustrated and Desperate Putin Could Resort to a Chemical Attack
Frank Gardner, writing for BBC, said “The unpleasant truth about chemical weapons is that if you have a protracted war, where the attacking military are trying to break the will of defending forces, then these weapons are one hideously effective way to achieve that.”
But Could Russian Forces Even Orchestrate the Attack
It is plausible that Russia could use chemical weapons, but their military is not likely to be able to carry out an attack. This would require protecting its own troops and the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The Russian armed forces have shown poor logistics support and coordination to even supply its troops conventionally. It is also not clear if Putin’s forces has adequate protective gear to guard against fall-out, although some chemical agents dissipate quickly.
If chemical weapons are used, the most likely scenario would be the false flag operation described above. Putin is an expert at lying and denying. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons would have to investigate. That could take months and would require some form of ceasefire for the scientists to carry out their work. If an attack occurred, the United States and NATO would likely add more participants to the list of countries who are engaging in sanctions against Russia. Allies would also send more powerful weapons to the Ukrainians such as airplanes, tanks, and long-range missiles in response.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.