Deter Russia’s Use of Chemical Weapons in Ukraine
How Biden handles threats will dissuade Moscow and other adversaries from using these weapons—or encourage it.
President Joe Biden warned on Monday that Vladimir Putin “is considering using” chemical weapons in Ukraine, pointing to baseless Russian allegations that Ukraine has these banned weapons. Moscow, which has actually used such weapons in attempts to assassinate opponents of the Putin regime, spouted similar lies about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. As Russian forces suffer heavy losses and increasing resort to scorched-earth tactics to overcome staunch Ukrainian resistance, Putin may believe that chemical weapons attacks—blamed on Ukraine—could provide a military advantage or boost his war’s domestic legitimacy.
The Biden administration and its allies should take the long-overdue step of suspending Russia from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, which is dedicated to eliminating chemical weapons. At the same time, the allies should strive to deter Putin by warning that Russia will pay a price on the battlefield if it uses chemical weapons.
In 2018, Russia’s military intelligence service used a debilitating nerve agent, Novichok, in the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the United Kingdom. While the Skripals survived, a mother of three was killed. Moscow struck again in 2020, employing Novichok to poison Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, this time inside Russia. After both attacks, Washington and its allies levied economic sanctions against Russia, but they failed to convince Putin to abandon his chemical weapons program.
Recent Russian statements could presage a chemical weapons attack in Ukraine. Two weeks ago, for example, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused America and Ukraine of planning a chemical or biological weapons attack that they would design to look as though Moscow had perpetrated it. Russia’s Defense Ministry repeated that claim last week, alleging that Ukraine and the West are preparing to use “poisonous substances” against civilians and “accuse Russia of using chemical weapons.” Moscow’s propaganda machine has dutifully amplified these and other Russian allegations at home and abroad.
On March 10, Pentagon officials told reporters that the U.S. government has “picked up indications” Moscow may be planning a so-called “false-flag” attack against Ukrainians to raise “a potential pretext” for the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine. Russia could also try to use a false-flag attack to boost domestic approval of the war. Since February, Moscow has sought to justify its invasion and delegitimize the Ukrainian government through baseless accusations regarding Kyiv’s alleged intent to develop or use various weapons of mass destruction.
The State Department has countered Russia’s assertions by noting that while the United States is in compliance with the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, Moscow is not. Russia, Ukraine, and the United States have all signed the convention, which requires countries to eliminate any existing chemical weapons stockpiles and commit not to develop or possess such weapons in the future. Yet Moscow’s previous use of Novichok is proof that Russia has an undeclared chemical weapons stockpile in violation of the treaty.
Moscow’s allegations about Ukraine are straight out of its playbook in Syria, where the Russian military has supported the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad since 2015. The United States estimates that the Assad regime, Russia’s longtime client, “has used chemical weapons at least 50 times since the Syrian conflict began.” Moscow has provided the regime with political cover, including at the OPCW and United Nations.
In 2018, for example, Russia baselessly accused the United Kingdom of pressuring Syria’s “White Helmets” aid group into staging a chlorine gas attack actually conducted by regime forces. Moscow has since repeatedly claimed, without providing evidence, that Syrian militants are planning false-flag chemical weapons attacks, although so far these warnings have not correlated with Russian or Assad regime use of chemical weapons.
Despite all this, Russia remains a member in good standing of the OPCW. This must change immediately. Washington and its allies should press for Russia’s suspension, just like they did with the Assad regime last April after Damascus refused to admit its continued possession and use of chemical weapons. That move had bipartisan support, as would Russia’s suspension. While primarily a political penalty, it would also prevent Moscow from continuing to manipulate OPCW votes to serve Russia’s and Syria’s narrow interests, and from using the organization as a platform to spread lies.
At the same time, Putin must be made to understand that “there’ll be severe consequences” if it uses chemical weapons in Ukraine, as Biden warned on Monday. While Biden probably will not order direct military retaliation, Washington and its allies should warn that Putin’s use of any weapon of mass destruction would force them to consider more aggressive military support for Ukraine, such as reviving plans to provide Polish MiG-29s to Ukraine or offering cruise missiles.
How Biden handles Russia’s chemical threats will either deter Moscow and other adversaries from using these weapons or encourage it. The world must hold Russia accountable for its past use of chemical weapons, while deterring Putin from using these weapons again.
Anthony Ruggiero was formerly senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the U.S. National Security Council.
Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.