As the west steps up its warnings that Russia could use chemical weapons in Ukraine, a broader fear lurks beneath the surface: the same poison gases that killed thousands on the front lines of the first world war could become an ever more familiar part of 21st century conflict.
Friday’s declaration by US President Joe Biden that “Russia would pay a severe price if they use chemical weapons” came after the White House said “we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false-flag operation using them”.
Those statements contrast starkly with the post-cold war hope that such weapons could soon be consigned to history, an aspiration encapsulated by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.
“Maybe worldwide there are fewer chemical weapons than there were during the cold war, but there is greater capacity and a willingness to use them,” said Filippa Lentzos, joint director of the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London.
She said Russia has an extensive range of chemical weapons — from sophisticated nerve agents to barrels of chlorine gas, the poison that inaugurated the age of chemical warfare in the first world war.
As well as Biden’s declaration this week, European officials have referred more privately to the Kremlin’s previous use of the nerve agent novichok to try to kill its foes.
One notorious case was the attempted murder in Salisbury in 2018 of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy who had defected to the UK. Another was the attempt against Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, in 2020.
“The history is there, with the Navalny and Skripal poisonings, and in Syria,” said one official, also referring to chemical weapons used by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s ally. “So we cannot rule out the use of chemical weapons in an escalation scenario.”
Russia, which entered the Syrian conflict in 2015 to help Assad fend off rebel forces, did not directly use chemical weapons against opposition areas itself. However, it provided diplomatic cover, backing Assad’s assertion that it was rebels who had set off chemical attacks.
In Ukraine, Russia has said Kyiv, backed by western allies, plans to use chemical weapons. The UN security council on Friday convened at Russia’s request to discuss Moscow’s claims, presented without evidence, of US “biological activities” in Ukraine.
“Allegedly, we are preparing a chemical attack,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said ahead of the meeting. “This makes me really worried because . . . if you want to know Russia’s plans, look at what Russia accuses others of.”
Analysts said any Russian use of chemical weapons in Ukraine would be very different from the more targeted novichok attacks on Navalny and Skripal, and would mark an alarming shift towards the “normalisation” of internationally banned substances.
“We think chemical weapons could be used,” said one western official, while cautioning: “There’s nothing to suggest they would use it [chemical weapons], at this point, in a major escalation of the current conflict.”
Defence officials have said they believe the Russian FSB and GRU intelligence agencies, whose operatives are active in Ukraine, have a relationship with the research institutions that produce chemical weapons.
One of the most prominent is Gosniiokht, the unit that developed novichok, which dates back to the early days of the Soviet era. It was sanctioned by the EU and the UK in 2020 in connection with the Navalny case and by the US the following year.
“What we are looking at is probably not the assassination weapons we have already seen . . . The concern is that there would be similar use of these indiscriminate chemical weapons, as in Syria, to target people who go below ground to their basement to hide from missile bombardment,” said Lentzos.
“You put chemical weapons in and people either die or they come up for air and get bombarded,” she added. “It’s a really horrific scenario, that is why there is so much effort, and extreme transparency on intelligence to call it out.”
She and other analysts see 2013 as being a turning point for chemical weapons. Despite previously claiming the use of chemical weapons by Syria would be a “red line”, the Obama administration that year opted against military action after the Assad regime killed hundreds of people with rockets containing sarin.
Despite a Russia-brokered deal to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons, the UN’s Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons subsequently found that the Assad regime used sarin and chlorine gas in 2017 and 2018.
“The international norm against chemical weapons use is under siege, most prominently by Syria and Russia,” wrote Kenneth Ward, a former US ambassador to the OPCW, last year. “The world is now precariously perched on the knife’s edge of a new era of chemical weapons use.”
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard in London