Will Russia use chemical weapons? Researchers evaluate the risks

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nears its 7th week, Western governments and independent observers continue to warn that Russia’s military could escalate from indiscriminately bombing cities to using non-conventional warfare, in particular chemical weapons.

The Kremlin has denied any intention to use chemical weapons. But the Russian government has been linked over the past two decades with this type of attack. And concern over President Vladimir Putin’s intentions spiked on 28 March, when The Wall Street Journal reported that envoys and mediators in Russia–Ukraine peace talks earlier in the month had been poisoned — although at least one Ukrainian government source has reportedly denied the story.

Nature spoke to several analysts to explore the chances of chemical weapons being deployed in the war.
Even though the world has outlawed the use of chemical weapons, the Russian government has been linked to them on several occasions, some recent.

In 2018, the UK government accused Russia of using a Novichok chemical — a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union decades ago — to poison Sergei Skripal, a Russian former double agent living in the United Kingdom. In another high-profile incident, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a different type of Novichok agent in 2020. The Kremlin denied involvement in either event.

“These two incidents raise question marks on whether elements of the former Soviet programme have not been eliminated,” says Ralf Trapp, a disarmament consultant based in Chessenaz, France.

Furthermore, Russian troops have fought alongside the regular Syrian army during that country’s civil war, which began in 2011. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), based in The Hague, the Netherlands, confirmed that the Syrian army deployed chemical weapons against its own people. The Russian government denied involvement in any of these attacks.

When it comes to Ukraine, the Russian government has accused the country of preparing to use chemical weapons. But Western governments say this could be a ‘false flag’ tactic, which the Kremlin has used in the past. “Russia has a long track record of accusing others of what they are either already doing or about to do,” said US President Joe Biden on 22 March, according to news outlet CNBC.

Trapp, who is a former OPCW officer and was involved in verifying adherence to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in several countries, including Ukraine, says there is no evidence that Ukraine has chemical weapons. “It doesn’t make any sense for the Ukrainians to think of using them,” he adds.

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