Firefighters extinguish a burning house hit by Russian Grad rockets in Kyiv's Shevchenkivsky district, on March 23, 2022.

Firefighters extinguish a burning house hit by Russian Grad rockets in Kyiv's Shevchenkivsky district, on March 23, 2022. AFP via Getty Images / ARIS MESSINIS

Chemical Weapons a ‘Real Threat’ in Ukraine, Biden Says

Russian rhetoric could be the precursor to an attack, NSA Sullivan says, as NATO plans to move more aid into Ukraine on Thursday.

There is a “real threat” of Russia using chemical weapons in Ukraine, President Joe Biden said Wednesday before flying to Brussels to meet with leaders about how to stop Moscow’s war. 

Russia has spent weeks falsely claiming that Ukraine is working on chemical and biological weapons programs funded by the United States. Even though the Soviet Union has been making unfounded allegations about American use of biological weapons since 1949, Russian officials recently brought the claims to the UN Security Council and have attempted to justify the invasion of Ukraine as necessary to stop this alleged research. 

That rhetoric from Russia makes officials worry that a biological or chemical weapons attack could be on the way, because it fits a pattern in which Moscow blames Ukraine or the West for something before taking that same action itself. 

“The main thing we’re looking at right now is the deliberate drumbeat of misinformation and propaganda and lies on this subject that has all the markers of a precursor to them actually using these weapons,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Wednesday at a briefing. He declined to comment on whether intelligence showed Russia moving chemical or biological weapons into position to use.  

Even if it does not use chemical weapons, Russia has committed brutal attacks already in Ukraine, including targeting a shelter that was marked as having children inside and bombing a maternity hospital. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said an investigation found that Russia’s troops have committed war crimes in Ukraine. 

Russia is also suffering significant casualties in the conflict, which could make troops more desperate to use all possible tools to stop the losses. A NATO military officer said Wednesday that between 30,000 and 40,000 Russian troops have been harmed, including between 7,000 and 15,000 killed, the Associated Press reported.

Before Moscow’s invasion began on Feb. 24, the administration repeatedly highlighted how Russia’s playbook often includes so-called “false flag” operations, spreading misinformation about Ukraine and the United States to argue that Russia had to defend itself and attack Ukraine. 

“What worries us about those types of statements or accusations is they may be again laying…a pretext for them to do something more or much worse inside Ukraine,” Julianne Smith, the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, said Wednesday at an Atlantic Council event. “We’ve been warning allies about this. We’ve been warning the Ukrainians. We’ve issued warnings to Russia.” 

Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, said March 9 that Russia is spreading “outright lies” and confirmed that the United States does not own or operate any chemical or biological weapons labs in Ukraine. Despite that statement, far-right American media, including Fox’s Tucker Carlson, quickly latched onto Russia’s claims as fact.

At the NATO Summit on Thursday, leaders are expected to approve additional military assistance for Ukraine, including equipment to protect Ukrainians against chemical and biological weapons, NATO leader Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday. Stoltenberg also strongly urged Russia not to use these types of weapons in the fight, saying he is “concerned” by Russia’s statements on chemical weapons use. 

“Any use of chemical weapons would totally change the nature of the conflict, and be a blatant violation of international law and will have far-reaching consequences,” he said at a press conference. “We are concerned also because we know that Russia has used chemical agents before and they have supported Assad and facilitated the use of chemical weapons in Syria”

More than 300 chemical attacks were launched during the Syrian Civil War, NPR reported in 2019. American officials accused Russia of helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime cover up these attacks, but Russian officials denied that chemical weapons were used. Instead, Russians claimed that the event was staged and the findings were used by the West to justify taking military action, Reuters reported.

On March 11, Biden also promised Russia would pay a “severe price” if it deployed chemical weapons in Ukraine. 

It’s possible a biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons attack in Ukraine could trigger a response from NATO if fallout from the attack drifted into a neighboring member of the alliance and impacted people there, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said Wednesday at a Defense Writers Group event.

“It would all be viewed through the lens of, is this an attack against a NATO country?” he said. “If a nuclear device is detonated and the radiation goes into an adjacent country, that could very well be perceived as an attack against NATO….It’s going to be a very difficult call, but it’s a call that not just the president but the entire NATO council will have to make.”