Reports emerged from Ukraine on April 11, 2022, alleging that Russia used a drone to drop an unknown chemical agent in the besieged southern city of Mariupol.
There has been no official confirmation of this information as of April 12. But the Pentagon said the news reflected US concerns about Russia’s “potential to use a variety of riot control agents, including tear gas mixed with chemical agents, in Ukraine.”
A chemical weapon can be any chemical used to harm people, including injuring or killing them. Many substances have been used as chemical weapons. Nerve agents are the deadliest because they require a lower dose to be lethal.
As an expert who has studied the use of chemical weapons in the civil war in Syria, I think since Russia attacked Ukraine for the first time that the likelihood of Russia using chemical weapons there is weak.
Russia has little political or military motivation to use them and would face strong international rebuke and possible military consequences for this type of attack.
But as recent reports might indicate, Russian use remains a possibility under certain circumstances. This is especially true if Russian President Vladimir Putin believes chemical weapons are the only way out of a stalemate in a key combat zone.
Chemical weapons in Syria
The ongoing Syrian civil war provides the most recent example of widespread chemical weapons attacks against civilians.
More than 300 chemical attacks have been reported in Syria since the war began in 2012. A joint team from the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has investigated some of the largest attacks and attributed them many to the Assad regime. .
Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, continued to support the Syrian government despite these attacks.
The Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people because it feared what would happen if it lost the war. Assad would lose power if the rebel parties defeat him. Assad and his associates also feared being killed.
In August 2012, President Obama warned Syria against using chemical weapons, saying it would be “a red line” for the United States.
In late 2012, reports began of chemical attacks carried out by the Syrian army.
In August 2013, Syrian forces carried out the largest chemical attack of the war. They fired rockets containing the nerve agent sarin into Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, killing around 1,400 people, including children.
Russia increased its support for Assad after these strikes.
Russia, however, worked with the United States to persuade a reluctant Assad in 2013 to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty that prohibits both the possession and use of such weapons.
Putin feared that without the deal, a potential US military response would turn into an effort to bring about regime change in Damascus and cause Russia to lose its closest ally in the Middle East.
The deal led to the destruction of more than 1,300 tons of Syrian chemical agents by early 2016. It also persuaded the Obama administration to refrain from military action in Syria.
However, in 2014 Syria resumed chlorine attacks, which can be deadly. Syria also later reverted to the occasional use of sarin.
Russian forces have never used chemical weapons themselves, but they have carried out massive airstrikes – similar to those used on several cities in Ukraine – which have destroyed significant parts of the Syrian city of Aleppo in 2016.
Chemical weapons were first used in World War I by nearly every major combatant. Opposing armies used mustard gas, chlorine and phosgene in battlefield operations.
In the Syrian war, chemical weapons were part of a counterinsurgency campaign waged by Assad to hurt rebel forces and their civilian supporters.
Syria had two clear objectives for the use of chemical weapons.
First, most of the attacks had a psychological purpose. They were intended to terrify civilian populations into stopping hiding rebel forces in their communities. Second, some of the most significant attacks were aimed at driving rebel forces out of areas they controlled.
These chemical attacks were not necessarily effective in achieving this military objective.
Instead, they were largely a function of desperation. Assad stepped up chemical attacks when his army began to run out of manpower and conventional ammunition, especially in areas where his regime was losing control.
Russia and chemical weapons
Russia is believed to possess chemical weapons despite having signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Russia has twice been accused of using chemical weapons in political assassination attempts.
In 2018, Russia poisoned a former Russian double agent living in the UK, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter with Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union in the final years of the Cold War.
The Skripals survived, but two other people who accidentally came into contact with the Novichok died as a result.
In 2020, Russia also attempted to poison opposition leader Alexei Navalny with Novichok. Navalny was hospitalized and nearly died, but he eventually recovered.
Russia has never admitted to owning Novichok. But the two assassination attempts show that Russia likely retains elements of a chemical weapons program.
There are other examples of Russia’s use of chemicals in law enforcement operations that have turned deadly. In October 2002, after Chechen militants took more than 900 people hostage in a Moscow theater, Russian security services pumped gas into the theater.
The power of the gas killed over 100 of the hostages. Russia never revealed what gas it was using, but experts believe it was a form of fentanyl, an opioid.
Consequences for Ukraine
It is clear that Putin would have no moral problem using chemical weapons. But for now, Russia probably feels no urgent need to use them.
The conditions that motivated the Assad regime – a shortage of conventional forces and the fear of being overthrown – do not apply to Russia’s situation in Ukraine.
Although Russian forces face increasing casualties in Ukraine, Russia still has the military capability to continue fighting at a conventional level. And because the war is not taking place inside Russia, Putin is not at risk of being overthrown by Ukrainian forces if they win the conflict.
Russia’s ability to terrorize civilians – a major goal of chemical weapons use – could also be limited.
A chemical attack may not have the intended psychological effect of demoralizing civilians. Putin seems to have misjudged the courage of Ukrainian civilians. The Ukrainians would probably want to continue fighting even if Russia used chemical weapons against them.
This situation could change if the Russian army was on the verge of a decisive defeat. Then desperation might lead Putin to consider a chemical option.
Although the risk of chemical weapons use, and especially large-scale use, remains low, it remains possible.
Jeffrey William Knopf is Professor and Director of the Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies Program, Middlebury Institute of International Studies
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.