THE USE OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS IN UKRAINE
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the conflict has continued to escalate. Alongside escalating tensions, fears of the use of a chemical, biological, radioactive, or nuclear weapon have increased the longer the conflict continues with no clear outcome. A number of geopolitical analysts have warned that the Kremlin may employ increasingly damaging tactics, with some analysts fearing that Russian forces might deploy a CBRN weapon in an attempt to bring about an end to the conflict. Indeed, the rhetoric from Russian officials and media have done little to assuage fears that a CBRN weapon could be deployed in the Ukraine conflict. In our previous bulletin, we examined the potential for the deployment of a tactical nuclear weapon. In this bulletin, we look at allegations of Russia’s use of chemical weapons, or their alleged tacit support for their use.
In 1993, Russia became a signatory of the Chemicals Weapons Convention, an arms control treaty prohibiting the large-scale use, development, production, stockpiling, and transfer of chemical weapons, and declared that it had over 40,000 tons of chemical weapons. In 2017, Vladimir Putin presided over the destruction of Russia’s supposed last chemical weapons. Despite this, there remain fears that Putin might use chemical weapons in Ukraine. Putin and his government have long been dismissive of international conventions regarding the use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, with overt threats of deploying nuclear weapons in Ukraine. In June 2022, the chairperson of the Parliament of Ukraine met with the director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (‘OPCW’). In their meeting, they discussed the implementation of the Chemicals Weapons Convention. In addition to implementing the Chemicals Weapons Convention, they discussed the threat of chemicals weapons use, and protection support that could be provided by the OPCW.
Russian proxy forces involved in the Ukrainian conflict, including the Wagner Group – a private mercenary group closely associated with Russian military operations – the Syrian Army Tiger Forces – a special unit of the Syrian Arab Army – and Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen forces, have all been accused of using chemical weapons in the past. The Wagner Group is alleged to have deployed unidentified chemical weapons in Libya, while the Chechen forces are alleged to have carried out a number of assassinations using chemical weapons. Most worrying is that the Tiger Forces have been identified as one of the main military units that have deployed large scale chemical attacks in Syria.
Russian public narrative
Since the beginning of the Russian offensive, supporters of Ukraine, including the US government, have warned of scene setting by Russian officials to support a narrative that any chemical weapon attacks would originate with Ukrainian forces.
For example, since the beginning of the conflict, Russian officials have been disseminating a narrative that Ukraine possesses a number of chemical weapons labs, implying that any chemical attacks that may take place in Ukraine would originate with the Ukrainian forces. Furthermore, in December 2021, ahead of the Russian invasion, the Russian defence minister alleged that US military contractors were secretly transporting “tanks filled with unidentified chemical components”. In early March 2022, the Russian foreign ministry further alleged that the US had supported a bioweapons programme in Ukraine, and that “Ukrainian nationalists” were preparing a chemical weapons false flag attack. A May 2022 report by the US State Department on Russian disinformation techniques regarding chemical weapons, noted the use of alternative narratives to confuse and distract from allegations levelled against Russia, and a propensity to blame the accusers.
Russia has continued to pursue these narratives, requesting that the United Nations investigate its allegations that the US has been supporting a chemical and biological weapons programme in Ukraine. The US State Department has previously warned of Russia’s use of multilateral agencies as a platform to disseminate its narrative without evidence. The US State Department concluded that Russia was “continuing attempts to sow contradiction, obfuscation, and disinformation through media and international gatherings”. This narrative is similar to that employed by Russia following allegations that the Russia-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad had deployed chemical weapons in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. The OPCW has identified at least 17 instances of chemical weapons deployment by Syrian forces. Despite these findings, Russia has sought to deny
that the Syrian regime has deployed chemical weapons. In 2017, Putin claimed that a chemicals weapons attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun in Syria was a false flag attack, and that additional false flag attacks were to be expected. Since 2018, Russia has alleged that the UK has deployed chemical weapons in Syria; however, no evidence in support of this allegation has been forthcoming.
April 2022 | Alleged chemical attack on Mariupol
The Russian state is already alleged to have deployed chemical weapons in the Ukrainian conflict. Most recently, in April 2022, a Ukrainian military unit defending the Ukrainian city of Mariupol reported that a Russian drone had released a “poisonous substance” onto a sawmill where the Ukrainian unit had taken refuge. Members of the unit have commented that they suffered dizziness, respiratory pain, and inflammation. However, the comments made by the military unit have not been independently verified.
While the allegations have not been independently verified, a chemicals weapons expert and former senior official of the OPCW commented that a largescale attack using chemical weapons would risk outrage from the international community, a small scale attack would be difficult to prove definitively. The city of Mariupol was surrounded by Russian forces, and effectively cut off from outside assistance. The chemicals weapons expert was of the view that it would be very difficult to prove the use of chemical weapons in the alleged Mariupol attack as due to their isolation, it was very unlikely that the victims of a chemical weapons attack would be given access to medical services that could take samples for analysis. They assessed it more likely that the Ukrainian forces would be captured and/or killed by Russian forces. Despite this view, the chemicals weapons expert was cautious about commenting on the veracity of the claims.
March 2022 | Poisoning of Roman Abramovich and Ukrainian diplomats
So far, Russia’s modus operandi regarding the use of chemical weapons have been restricted to several small scale chemical attacks that have been traced to Russian security forces. Most notably, these include the 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, UK and the 2020 poisoning of Alexei Navalny while on a flight from Tomsky to Moscow.
In March 2022, additional allegations of poisonings began to emerge. Two senior Ukrainian diplomatic officials taking part in peace negotiations began to display symptoms of “red eyes, constant and painful tearing, and peeling skin on their faces and hands”. The billionaire, Roman Abramovich, who was working as a mediator in the negotiations, also received treatment after being exposed to a “suspected poison”. A former captain in Russian special forces commented that the poisoning was likely a diversion tactic by the Kremlin. This former special forces captain was of the view that the poisoning achieved a number of objectives for the Kremlin, specifically, media attention resulted in “sympathy for Abramovich”, who the captain saw as close to the Kremlin, as well as diverting attention away from more politically sensitive topics.
As the conflict continues, Russian officials are becoming increasingly focused on a rapid end to the conflict, which has seen an unexpectedly resilient Ukrainian response to the Russian invasion. A number of analysts are growing increasingly concerned that the deployment of a CBRN weapon is part of the considerations to bring an end of the conflict in Russia’s favour. Russia’s previous direct use of chemical weapons, their support for the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, and comments made by senior Russian officials, indicate that despite its position as a signatory of the Chemicals Weapons Convention, an increasingly under pressure Russian military may see the deployment of these weapons as an acceptable strategy to achieve its objectives. In March 2022, NATO countries, in a joint statement, warned that “any use by Russia of a chemical or biological weapons would be unacceptable and result in severe consequences”.
Any investigation into the use of chemical weapons is time consuming, and blame can only be attributed after a long investigation proving the use of chemical weapons. The Russian media narrative thus far has exacerbated the limitations in chemicals weapons investigations by repeatedly alleging, with no supporting evidence, that Ukraine, assisted by the West, has been preparing false flag attacks, lending the Russian state a veneer of plausible deniability. Further complicating any investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons by Russian forces is the fact that officially, Russia does not have any chemical weapons depots, having allegedly destroyed stockpiles in 2017.
The May 2022 US State Department report warned that: “Russia has a track record of accusing the West of the very violations that Russia itself is perpetrating. Russia is once again spreading disinformation about chemical weapons. Russia’s latest attempts to twist the truth on this very serious topic may be another Kremlin ploy foreshadowing another horrific use of chemical weapons, this time in Ukraine.”