One to lie, and one to listen...
“Marge, it takes two to lie. One to lie, and one to listen.”
The Simpsons, Colonel Homer
Ukraine continues to find new levels of horror. The 9th of March saw Mariupol’s maternity hospital, and numerous other buildings destroyed by Russian missiles and shelling. It also saw an increase in rhetoric from Western countries concerned about an expected Russian use of chemical weapons. This was not new, in the build up to the conflict there had been a sudden escalation in unease, both occasions the cause was the same; Russian statements on potential Ukrainian non-conventional weapons.
There has been a lot of talk about the current conflict being a re-tread of the Syrian conflict – targeting hospitals, waves of refugees as weapons etc. In that conflict Russian media would state that a chemical attack was imminent as a way of obscuring attribution for Assad’s own chemical outrages. Recently there have been Russian suggestions that Ukraine was building a plutonium device (‘dangerous nonsense’ says the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists), prior to that it was the many biological labs that DTRA has been building that it falsely claimed are making bio weapons (“Russia is willing to lie to try to justify their invasion” said CTR director Robert Pope).
Russia lies like a cheap watch, and always has when it comes to CBRN. We’ve previously done articles examining this (see ‘Behind the Maskirovka’ interview with Milton Leitenberg in CBRNe World 2020-02), and while Russia had frequently been ‘economical with the actualité’ it took its mendacity to a new level when Putin came into power. Bi-lateral Comprehensive Threat Reduction (CTR) measures that had existed for years fell into abeyance, it flexed its chemical muscles on the world stage with the attempted assassinations of the Skripals and Navalny and it increased its own biological laboratories (and also ‘The agent that came in from the cold’ CBRNe World 2017-06). It isn’t a surprise that Russia is lying about CBRN, the surprise is that the US and UK are taking it seriously.
When official White House spokespeople and UK Foreign Secretaries state something that significant you have to believe that they can back it up with reasonable intelligence – at the very least signals intercepts but also satellite images showing the kind of logistics trail that an offensive CW campaign needs. Even if you are going to have GRU agents plant the false flag attack you’d want to have assets like, RKhM-5M/RKhM-6 CBRN recce, UTM-80M/ARS-16/KDA decon, KRPP-2 mobile NBC control post vehicles, in the area, otherwise what was meant to be a limited release could have larger battlefield implications. Chemical weapons are great for causing panic, and unless you can manage the scene with some assets then the incident could get a life of its own.
While we might groan when we think back to ‘Curveball’ and the Iraq invasion, satellite photos and agents testimony was the kind of ‘evidence’ that has been previously trotted out to denounce states. The only evidence that the US and UK are offering up is that Russia is talking about these weapons and when they do that a chemical attack tends to turn up.
Ukraine is not Syria, however. Assad’s descent to chemical weapons was a long one, and arguably didn’t achieve a great deal (in the same way that IS’ attacks against the Kurds didn’t) other than increasing human misery. Many of his attacks were punishment against villages far behind the front lines, rather than on fighting troops or areas that friendly forces might have to fight through. We are only in week two of the invasion, and despite the fact that it is costly and slower than they would like, the Russians are ‘winning.’ Deploying chemical weapons into contested areas is not going to achieve his aims of a rapid incursion into Kyiv leading to surrender. Instead, after the initial shock, it is likely to stiffen the resolve of military defenders, force the attackers (as well as the defenders) into PPE, increase their own casualties (when the wind changes) and provoke international outrage.
Currently Ukraine doesn’t have the Syrian climate for chemical weapons either. Most chemical weapons work well when they volatilise, and get into the atmosphere and people’s lungs… but cold weather retards this ability. The agent is likely to stay close to the munition site, and some agents might freeze and only become active once the weather warms up… by which time ‘friendly’ troops could be in the area. The suggestion that Putin might use biological weapons is even more far-fetched. The one thing that Covid has shown us is the impossibility of persuading people to take vaccines and that pathogens jump in ways unexpected. A bio-release has the potential to impact both Ukrainian and Russian soldiers and civilians.
There is also the very real issue of Russian morale. Arguably pilots and artillery officers can be deceived and told that a hospital is actually a command centre, or a school is a special forces laager. There can be little doubt what is going to happen if you are told to load shells with chemical markings on it. In a conflict this young the necessary hate has yet to be built up in the Russian soldiers, Ukraine still feels like ‘friendly forces’, and there can be no hiding the fact that the killing will be indiscriminate once that round leaves the barrel. If you want to instigate a mutiny then getting kids to load chemical fill would seem to be a good way to go about it.
There has been a lot of chatter about whether Putin is ‘crazy’ or not, and this use of CBW seems to fit that narrative. Poor battlefield decisions around Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plants add to it: ‘if Putin can risk another meltdown, what else might he do?!’ Definitely not one to try and comment on his mental health, but he has been clear about escalating the conflict in Ukraine for the past eight years. There have also been near-constant aspersions on the various diagnostic and biodefence labs in Ukraine, this is all well seeded soil and much of it for internal consumption. We might not like what he is doing, and we may deplore the methods, but we shouldn’t say that we are surprised.
Knowing that this is not new and potentially implausible in the immediate term, why are the US and UK pushing this so hard? Perhaps to remind various electorates that there is very little that Putin won’t stoop to do – rehashing your opponent’s worst decisions ('Remeber Litvinenko... Skripal... Navalny...') is page one of the politics playbook. With fuel prices going through the roof and a likely grain shortage around the corner, making it feel like an apocalyptic struggle helps sell these shortages to the electorate. Secondly it lays the ground for any escalation that Nato countries might need to do. Now the popular narrative is about stopping Russian false flag attacks using chemical and biological weapons, rather than saving people from a country that many couldn’t have found on a map. Finally there is the deterrence angle, that drawing attention to Russia’s CBW narrative makes it less likely to happen. This latter is the narrative that the UK and US keep stressing, but it is not the only one. Linking Russia and CBW is an active strategy to isolate them on the world stage, justify actions and act as balm for cash strapped voters – it’s as much a part of their response as sanctions.
When it comes to second guessing Putin I’d be in a long queue of people who got it wrong… but I can’t see any advantage in him using non-conventional weapons in the next few months. While the cold weather lasts it is not going to deliver its whole horrific potential, and is likely to slow his advance rather than speed it up. It will shatter the political advantage that they had over the US in destroying their declared chemical weapon stocks. It’ll also harden the inevitable cease fire and peace negotiations, and see a far longer freeze set in for commerce and international events. Finally it will harden China’s feelings towards them, their most important international partner: it’s hard to support someone that ‘gasses’ civilians. All in all it seems unlikely, the tactical and strategic negatives far outweigh the positives… unless there is a very different playbook.