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After US intelligence accurately predicted Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s disturbing that Americans now fear Russia is preparing to use chemical weapons during the conflict.
“I’m not going to speak about the intelligence, but Russia will pay a severe price if they use chemicals,” President Joe Biden told CNN’s Arlette Saenz last week.
Russia has planted the unsubstantiated idea that Ukraine and the US may use these weapons, an allegation that national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday should be a warning.
“It’s a tell that they themselves may be preparing to do so, and then trying to pin the blame on someone else,” he said.
After recently trying to get smart on Russia’s stockpile of nuclear weapons and threats, it’s time, sadly, to learn about chemical weapons.
I talked to Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, about what these weapons are, why the world was supposed to be eradicating them and how they could be used by Russia in Ukraine.
The key points of what he told me over the phone, edited for length and flow, are below.
What are chemical weapons?
KOBLENTZ: Chemical weapons are man-made toxic chemicals that are poisonous for humans. So things like sarin and mustard and VX are probably the most famous types of chemical weapons. Different chemicals work different ways, but basically the effects depend on the dose that you receive.
That’s why (Russian dissident Alexey) Navalny and (former KGB double agent Sergei) Skripal were able to survive the assassination attempts on them, because they probably only got a very small exposure to the chemical, and then they were able to get some treatment right when they became symptomatic.
What are biological weapons?
KOBLENTZ: Biological weapons are either bacteria or viruses or toxins derived from living things that infect you and cause the disease. So it’s a totally different mechanism of action. And the types of materials involved are entirely different.
The typical biological weapons that we will talk about are things like, you know, anthrax, smallpox, plague, tularemia – these are living organisms, right? They’re biological entities, they’re not inert man-made chemicals – so fundamentally very different.
How are chemical and biological weapons different?
KOBLENTZ: When you get infected with a biological weapon, again, depending on the particular pattern we’re talking about, you might get a very small dose; you might inhale only a small amount of anthrax spores. But then because these are living organisms, they will, once you’ve been infected, they will start multiplying in your body.
Unfortunately, we’ve learned way more than we want to about routes of infection and the epidemiology of this stuff because of Covid-19, right? But that’s how the biological weapons work differently.
Some biological weapons can be contagious, right? Some can spread person to person. Chemicals do not do that.
If you’re contaminated with a chemical, it’s on your skin or it’s under clothing. You could transfer it to somebody else. But someone who has been exposed to sarin is not contagious. They can’t spread sarin by sneezing on somebody else. So there are some different fundamental properties, the way these things operate.
Does Russia admit to having chemical weapons?
KOBLENTZ: First off, chemical and biological weapons are banned under international law, and Russia has signed those treaties and claims it doesn’t have chemical or biological weapons.
So, you know, for it to use either of those weapons would be to admit that it’s been violating those treaties for many decades.
Could Russia use chemical weapons against Ukraine?
KOBLENTZ: I wouldn’t expect Russia to use these weapons, either openly or directly on Ukrainian civilians or the military, just because:
a) It’s a huge escalation of the conflict.
b) It would not be too hard to trace back the use to Russia, and all the diplomatic and political problems that come along with that.
c) It’s not clear to me what the military value would be for this.
If the Russians are just trying to kill civilians, which is what chemical weapons are really good at, unfortunately the Russians have lots of conventional weapons that they can use very effectively for that, from the thermobaric weapons to cluster munitions to bombing apartment buildings.
d) And, finally, there’s some question about if Russia had chemical and biological weapons ready to go. Could they even use them effectively, given how, you know, how poorly they performed in terms of logistics, and just supplying their forces with conventional firepower? Because you need special handling for these weapons and special training and logistics and units. And if the Russians can’t keep their soldiers fed and keep the tires inflated on their trucks, are they really going to have confidence that they’re going to conduct a very complex chemical or biological attack? That seems unlikely.
How, then, might Russia use chemical weapons?
KOBLENTZ: The bigger risk for me is that basically they conduct what people call a false-flag operation, right?
Where they stage an attack that is either completely fake or they use a limited amount of a chemical agent in territory they control and then blame it on Ukraine or the United States as a way of trying to justify the invasion to date, and maybe they justify some kind of escalation.
At some point, Russia is kind of running out of their conventional military power. They might have to call in the reserves, they might have to do other things that would be very unpopular domestically, so they might need to gin up more of a justification for what they’ve done.
What suggests Russia could use chemical weapons as part of a false-flag operation?
KOBLENTZ: The US, the United Kingdom and some other European countries have said they have intelligence that Russia is planning this. So we have to take it seriously, because we think these were the same people warning that Russia was going to invade Ukraine, which they did.
But I think it’s most likely a false flag and most likely … would be very carefully staged and controlled by them so they can maximize propaganda value and minimize the risk to which they’re going to be exposed.
What about the argument Russia has already used chemical weapons against dissidents in Russia and the UK?
KOBLENTZ: Putin has a long history of poisoning people that he doesn’t like.
(Note: Putin has denied this.)
Alexey Navalny was the most recent example, but the Skripals in the UK clearly were another one, and those two cases were particularly notable because they involved the Novichok nerve agent, which is a chemical agent the Soviet Union developed during the Cold War.
The use of Novichok was a pretty clear fingerprint that the Kremlin was behind those two attempted murders.
What else does the use of Novichok tell us?
KOBLENTZ: We know they have these Novichok nerve agents, which are deadlier than the other kinds of chemical weapons that have been developed previously. We don’t know how much they have. And for an assassination program, you don’t need very much.
But it is a clear indicator that the Russian chemical weapons program has continued in some way, even though they claim that they destroyed all their stockpiles and (claim) their compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Has Russia used chemical weapons on people in the past?
KOBLENTZ: Novichok was developed in the 1980s, but, you know, the Soviet leadership would use poison pretty frequently since the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. Enemies of the state keep getting poisoned in Russia.
That’s a long-standing tactic by them to poison dissident defectors, journalists and political rivals, and a long history of folks like that getting poisoned in Russia. Alexey Navalny is unfortunately only the latest in a long line of people who’ve run afoul of the Kremlin who end up getting poisoned, and it’s just this time there’s the most modern nerve agent used, not some of the older types of chemicals that would have been used in previous years.
These weapons are illegal under a treaty joined by both the US and Russia. What’s the brief history there?
KOBLENTZ: So it started right after World War I, which is the first time you had chemical weapons used. These weapons caused horrific casualties during that war.
And so as part of the effort in the mid-1920s to try and develop international laws regulating conflict and trying to prevent other wars as deadly and devastating as World War I, one of the topics we want to do was ban chemical weapons.
They didn’t get an agreement to ban a couple of weapons. What they got was the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which said countries agreed not to use chemical weapons. …
Only Japan used chemical and biological weapons in World War II. None of the other great powers did, even though they all had programs to one degree or another.
And then, by the late ’60s, early ‘70s, there was a push to ban biological weapons. And that resulted in the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, which banned development, production and acquisition of biological weapons. This was the first invoked treaty to eliminate an entire class of weapons of mass destruction. So it was kind of very groundbreaking that way.
The one big shortfall to that treaty, though, is that there’s no verification mechanism attached to it. There’s no international organization to verify that countries are actually complying with the treaty.
By the late ’80s, there was widespread use of chemical weapons by Iraq against Iran. There were concerns that Libya was building chemical weapons, and the Cold War was winding down, so all these conditions made it possible for there to be the creation of a Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993.
That was like the BWC because it said you cannot develop, produce or acquire chemical weapons, but on top of that there was an organization created, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based at The Hague, that would verify compliance with the treaty. … The US is the last country in the treaty with the clear chemical weapons that are awaiting destruction, and they’re supposed to be done in a year or two, I believe.
(Note: The US is required under the treaty to destroy its remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons by September 30, 2023. Currently, it still has tons of chemical weapons, including sarin and VX, awaiting destruction in Pueblo, Colorado, and Blue Grass, Kentucky, according to the Arms Control Association.)