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Will Chemical Weapons Be Used in Ukraine?

All states have a collective responsibility to prevent the use of chemical weapons by anyone, in any circumstances, including in Ukraine. But if such attacks do occur, the strengthening of investigative and attribution mechanisms since the war in Syria means that the perpetrators will most likely be held accountable.

LONDON – Russia has claimed, without evidence, that the United States is operating biowarfare laboratories in Ukraine. The US has dismissed the allegations as “preposterous,” and – along with NATO leaders – warned that the Kremlin might be seeking to manufacture a pretext for using chemical or biological weapons in its flailing military assault against its neighbor. Ukraine has previously said that, like many other countries, it has public-health laboratories dedicated to researching how to mitigate the threats of dangerous diseases affecting animals and humans.

On March 11, the United Nations Security Council met at Russia’s request to address the issue, but Russia was again unable to provide any credible proof of its allegations. The UN Secretariat briefed the UNSC members on the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention, and referred to the possibility of using a consultation mechanism when there are doubts about compliance.

Under the circumstances, it is unlikely that such consultations could take place between Russia and Ukraine. The World Health Organization, evidently giving more credence to Ukraine’s side of the story, has advised the country to destroy highly dangerous pathogens in its public-health labs in order to prevent their accidental release as a result of the fighting.

But what about chemical weapons? In assessing the risk of their use in Ukraine, we should recall key recent events, particularly in Syria, where chemical weapons were used on multiple occasions during the country’s civil war. In September 2013, the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism – triggered by then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the basis of prohibitions contained in the 1925 Geneva Protocol – determined that the nerve agent Sarin had been used the previous month in Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. The attack caused more than 1,400 civilian deaths.

Following an agreement between Russia and the US, Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons and joined the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in October 2013. This meant that Syria became subject to the scrutiny of the comprehensive verification mechanism of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

The OPCW Fact-Finding Mission subsequently confirmed the use of chemical weapons at other sites in Syria. The Joint Investigative Mechanism established by the UNSC in August 2015, and later the Investigation and Identification Team created by the OPCW Conference of the States Parties in June 2018, identified the Syrian government as being responsible for employing chemical weapons on several occasions.

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Although the States Parties suspended Syria’s voting and other rights in the OPCW in 2021, further action by the UNSC is unlikely because of Russian opposition. In fact, Russia has fully supported the Syrian government in international forums following its military intervention in the country’s civil war in September 2015.

At the OPCW, Russia, together with a few other countries, launched a concerted campaign to discredit the findings of different investigations. They fabricated several, sometimes contradictory, narratives in order to sow confusion and doubt in the minds of third parties about the Syrian government’s responsibility for chemical-weapon attacks. And they persistently tried to discredit the science-based reports that were sufficient to establish the facts. According to some Russian accounts, armed opposition groups in Syria used chemical weapons in such a way as to make Syria’s Russia-backed government appear responsible.

The Syrian government argued that it did not need to use chemical weapons, because it had sufficient conventional capabilities to quell armed opposition groups. Military experts thought otherwise. In some areas where the Syrian army got bogged down, the use of chemical weapons apparently helped to create panic and terror among civilians, demoralize opposition forces, and capture territories controlled by them with fewer losses for the army.

Moreover, the recent use of chemical weapons has not been limited to Syria. The nerve agent Novichok was used to poison the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in 2018 in the United Kingdom, and Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny in 2020 in Russia. In 2017, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was killed with VX – another nerve agent – at Kuala Lumpur airport.

Russia, which inherited the world’s largest stockpile of chemical weapons from the Soviet Union, is now not supposed to have any. Along with other states, Russia was obliged to declare all chemical weapons in its possession to the OPCW and destroy them, subject to the organization’s verification, which occurred in November 2017. But the subsequent uses of Novichok (albeit in very small quantities) attributed to Russia have fueled suspicions that it may have hidden some of its stockpile.

If so, would Russia use chemical weapons in Ukraine, especially if the war drags on? Or should we rule out this possibility, particularly in view of the significant deterrent provided by the OPCW’s reinforced attribution mechanism?

To be sure, the verification procedures for investigating alleged chemical-weapons use have become more capable, sophisticated, and effective. CWC States Parties are determined to prevent any further uses, and since June 2018 the attribution mechanism can be invoked if there are new allegations of chemical-weapons use in any State Party.

In my statement as OPCW director-general at the opening session of that 2018 meeting, I said that, “Chemical weapons use, wherever it occurs, is a serious offense requiring resolute action.” Moreover, I added, “If accountability is avoided, the potential re-emergence and acceptance of chemicals as weapons of war and terror will not be deterred.”

I stand by that statement today. All states have a collective responsibility to prevent the use of chemical weapons by anyone, in any circumstances, including in Ukraine. But if we fail to do so, I am confident that those responsible will be identified and held accountable.

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