The chemical fog of war  

The chemical fog of war

[BLUF: The more PMCs and foreign fighters we see in the Ukrainian conflict the greater the likelihood of a limited release of toxic industrial chemicals.]

Nearly two weeks ago, when the fear of nuclear[1] or chemical weapon use was palpable, we provided our take on the hullabaloo ( President Biden has just come out and reiterated the concern[2], without any clear statement of what would happen if they were used[3]. Frankly the statement that “It would trigger a response in kind” – meaning it would reflect what had taken place3”is massively unhelpful language, as it could be interpreted to suggest that any use of chemical weapons from Russia would see a similar use from Nato. Nato forces do not have chemical weapons, have no training to use them and have turned their back on them for thirty years. Biden’s sloppy language could now be used by Russian troll farms and social media warriors to state that the US and Europeans do have this capability and that it is linked with other elements of disinformation. This faux pas aside, has anything changed?

While a great deal has happened on the individual level, more homes destroyed, people displaced and civilians killed, the theatre map remains much the same. Kyiv is still not encircled, Mariupol has still not fallen and Odesa and Lviv are still largely untouched by the war. Much like two weeks ago there is no ‘down’ side from utilising this chemical ‘mood music’. Constantly reiterating their concern acts as a potential deterrent to Putin, and has the added benefits of reminding people (constantly) that he has used them against civilians before. It works for internal and external digestion, with China and India sitting on the sidelines a little bit of ‘prep’ for them will not go amiss.

Is there anything else that might have generated this recent refrain? Arguably it could be the ‘foreign fighters’ that are being utilised on both sides. These range from private military contractors, like the Wagner Group, through to elements of the Syrian and Chechen army. Seemingly unlike the Ukrainian Army, that has been attempting to integrate foreign fighters into their force structure[4], Russian forces have kept their allies as paramilitaries or terror troops[5]. While there is oversight it seems that the command and control of these, especially in the fighting in built up area (FIBUA) element is rather confused. This is not just a force structure or language problem, but the Russian communication infrastructure has not weathered the operation well, with forces needing to use the Ukrainian cellphone network and pass information en clair[6]. It would be fair to say that battalion commanders don’t have a clear idea what is going on in their location, never mind the Kremlin.

Many of these ‘volunteer/private’ forces have been brutalised by years, if not decades of combat. Wagner Group have been especially censured for their role in Africa, Syria and Ukraine[7], and seem to be Putin’s ‘go to’ for deniability. At the same end of the spectrum are Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen forces, who delight in terror and black ops. When not fighting for Putin abroad, they have been involved in bitter fighting in their country against Muslim separatists. Chechnya has been a conflict as bitter as Syria has been, and Ukraine promises to be. While there might not have been battlefield releases of chemical warfare agents, there was more use of them in assassinations[8].  Finally there are the Syrian forces, that range from individuals that are just happy to have a job through to elite troops like the Tiger Forces that created such death and misery in Syria[9]. None of these individuals are ideologically motivated to ‘freedom from Neo-Nazi oppression and gangsterism in Donetsk and the Crimea.’ Instead they are there to fight either for profit or shared camaraderie and a skill in creating human misery.

Amongst their many crimes the Wagner Group have been accused of using chemical weapons[10] (at least at the lower end of the toxicity spectrum) and the Tiger Forces have been identified by GPPI as the leading deployer of chemical weapons in Syria. In addition to this, when the Russian’s started their intelligence operation on ‘chemical weapon usage’ in Ukraine, their chosen target were ‘American mercenaries[11].’ If Putin is laying a trail for what comes next, then it’s these proxy forces that will be at the forefront of blame.  

It is not a massive leap of the imagination to see a Syrian Army Tiger Force, for example, taking casualties from a well-entrenched Ukrainian Army and deciding to act on their own tactical initiative. The Donbas, and even the besieged cities, have plenty of chemical industry[12] that can either be targeted for large scale release[13], or ransacked for the most toxic substances[14] (“By the end of 2009 in Ukraine, [in] 2987 warehouses, more than 20 thousand tons of unsuitable pesticides were stockpiled, more than half of them are unknown mixtures of highly toxic pesticides, which are included in the list of UN resistant organic pollutants[15]”). We have already seen the use of white phosphorous[16] against Ukrainian forces, and in a confused battlefield environment there is a chance that this could be combined with other releases, resulting in harm and death to military and civilian forces. ‘Willie Pete’ in a ‘shake and bake’ capacity is a war crime, but it is one that many forces have involved themselves in. It would be unlikely to cross Biden’s ‘nature of the use.’   

Expanding the number of rogue actors that are outside of the chain of command, have no ideological links to the conflict, are brutalised and have a history of using chemical weapons is likely to result in an increase in the likelihood of an incident involving toxic industrial chemicals.

If this did happen, what would the battlefield effect be? Traditionally the impact of military releases of noxious substances is felt by civilians, who do not have military protection, but I would suggest that it would also impact the vast number of conscripts that are fighting bravely in the besieged cities. We are seeing teenagers get three days training before they are deployed[17] and while Ukrainian regulars have probably had their fill of ‘NBC’ drills, this will not be the case for the latest influx of fighters. They are unlikely to stand firm, even if they have the PPE, in the midst of a toxic environment. Equally when, as a Syrian, you have Chechens on one side of you, Russians on the other, do you really care if they get a snoutful of ‘gas’ too? When there is no empathy with either your civilian or military neighbours, then there is less concern about usage. There is also a potential advantage to footage of Russian chemical victims, especially when there has been no GRU chatter (for example) beforehand. Confusion over who did it, why they did it, what they used and whether it was an accident will ripple up and down the Russian command chain, as much as the Ukraine/Nato one. Planning and executing these kinds of attacks in small national/regional/unit silos will result in genuine deniability. But while it might increase the butchers bill for a city, block or building, these small scale releases are not going to have a significant effect on the outcome of a battle.

Moving from the battlefield to the boardroom, will a limited release of toxic industrial chemicals make much difference? Arguably not. To get up to an Obama-esque ‘red line’ there would have to be a release of chemical warfare agents, something that Biden has already hinted at. A ‘weird’ limited release that doesn’t seem to have any clear perpetrator or advantage is not going to persuade the Chinese or Indians to harden their hearts or convince the European Nato partners to prepare for Armageddon. To shift a gear in this conflict there would need to be a Ghouta/Halabjah-style release. Anything else will ratchet up the rhetoric but nothing else.



















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