AS the Russian invasion of Ukraine grinds into its fourth week, the spectre of the use of chemical weapons has been raised by the head of Nato, Jens Stoltenberg.
In the absence of further information, it is useful to set out the facts as far as we know them. As I explained on GB News, the Russians are a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention and in 2017 declared that their stockpile was destroyed. The convention includes verification processes.
Of course, in 2018 Putin’s agents used a small – about one gram – sample of Novichock nerve agent in the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury. But that is a far cry from having sufficient stockpile for a military strike on Kiev or any of the other besieged cities.
Notwithstanding the general contempt that Putin and his puppeteers have for the West and the rule of law, if Russia does have militarily significant quantities of chemical weapons in breach of its treaty obligations, that is a very serious matter – possibly enough to have it suspended from UN.
One would like to think that such brazen conduct is unthinkable, but so were nuclear threats a month ago. So let’s look at the practicalities.
Using chemical weapons is far from straightforward. For obvious reasons, it needs well-trained personnel. Generating an attack concentration on to a distant target requires hundreds of kilograms of chemicals.
There are three methods. The simplest is to spray liquid chemical from an aircraft flying overhead. Given the lacklustre performance of the Russian air force to date, and the Ukrainians’ ability to shoot planes down with Western surface-to-air missiles such as Stinger and Starstreak, this has to be a high-risk option – and probably not popular with pilots.
Alternatively, artillery and rockets could be used. This presents the logistical challenge of getting lots of chemical-filled shells to the firing units. Russian logistics haven’t been brilliant so far, so again this looks unlikely.
Which leaves missiles. The Russians have some excellent ones that have the range and accuracy to deliver on Kiev from a launch point in Russia. So if they have tons of chemical weapons and if they have suitable warheads, there is a capability.
Even if they have no chemical weapons, they could potentially use toxic industrial chemicals such as chlorine, as happened in Syria. However, dropping barrel bombs from aircraft over Kiev is, as noted above, unlikely to work due to Ukrainian air defence. Whether Putin has developed missile warheads to deliver industrial chemicals by missile is unknowable.
What’s the possible benefit to Russia? Most chemical weapons kill horribly, so they could cause substantial, indiscriminate casualties. The tactical benefit, where Russian and Ukrainian forces are fighting, is, I think, questionable, as at some stage the Russians would have to follow up the chemical strike.
This would raise the prospect of either having to wear full chemical warfare kit, or face suffering casualties from their own chemicals.
It is possible to fight in chemical environments, and during the Cold War both Nato and Warsaw Pact forces trained for it. However, it’s complicated and takes lots of training.
The protective equipment significantly reduces the wearer’s awareness and vision while adding substantially to the physical loads on his body, equivalent perhaps to carrying another 33lb (15kg) or so.
Strategically, a chemical attack would increase terror in Ukraine. Whether that would translate to a collapse of morale or increased fury within the Ukrainian armed forces is unknowable. So far, they have not played to the Russian script.
The effect on the rest of the world would be disastrous for Russia – its isolation would increase if China and India decided to distance themselves from Putin’s pickle. Nato, or some of its members, might conclude that a red line had been crossed.
The outcome of all warfare is uncertain. If Putin believed that Ukraine would fold quickly, allowing him to present the world with a fait accompli as he did with the Donbass and Crimea, his information was wrong. That should not surprise him. Russians seldom speak the truth to power and he was an apparatchik once.
His army is, sometimes literally, bogged down. It may just have the strength to lay siege to Kiev, but it certainly does not have the strength to conquer Ukraine – let alone hold it, unless Ukrainian morale collapses.
Putin does need to end this war. While he seems to be keeping a lid on the detail within Russia, it’s starting to crack – as shown yesterday by the extraordinary sight of a female Russian TV editor standing behind a newsreader on a state-controlled channel and holding a placard denouncing lies and propaganda about the war.
Those who hope for peace in Ukraine via a Russian popular deposing of Putin should consider the end of the Third Reich – in far worse circumstances, the German population did not rebel and the Wehrmacht fought on.
We need some top-notch diplomacy, an avoidance of hyperbole and unsubstantiated claims, plus some powerful deterrence. We needed it last month – we really need it now.