As if on cue, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov publicly raised the specter of chemical and biological weapons on Tuesday. Russia, he claimed – without providing evidence – had information that the US was worried about the prospect of losing control over secret Western chemical and biological laboratories in Ukraine.
“I think, and I won’t reveal secrets, but we have data that the Pentagon is very much concerned about the fate of chemical and biological facilities in Ukraine,” Lavrov said during a speech at the United Nations HQ in New York on Tuesday . “They are worried that they will lose control over these facilities.”
Western defense sources do not share this view. “Ukraine has no such weapons labs,” says Rear Admiral John Gower, a former assistant chief of defense staff and long-term counterpart to Weber at the Ministry of Defense, where he specialized in nuclear weapons and counter-CBRN (chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear) policy. “It is signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention – both of which have norms or inspections regimes with which Ukraine is compliant.”
Weber worries the Kremlin is playing up a fictitious threat of weapons of mass destruction to create a justification – a so-called “false flag” – for Putin to widen his range of military options. He points out that this would follow the Syrian playbook: Assad’s regime would blame Isis or al Qaeda affiliates whenever it conducted a chemical attack.
As Hamish de Bretton Gordon, the British Army’s former chemical and nuclear weapons chief puts it: “The Putin playbook seems to have been developed in the last five years in Syria. Of course chemical weapons are part of it – particularly fighting in towns and cities.”
The sickening images coming out of Ukraine over the last 48 hours certainly hark back to the destruction Assad and Russian forces unleashed on Aleppo and other Syrian cities, but is the use of chemical and biological agents really a clear and present danger in the current conflict?
And, if so, what makes Weber, one of the world’s foremost authorities on weapons of mass destruction, so convinced Putin would use them ahead of nuclear?
Russia’s willingness to use weapons of mass destruction
There is no doubt that Russia has a long history of producing chemical and biological weapons. It has also shown a willingness to deploy them both on home soil and abroad with terrifying and lethal results.
When Chechen rebels stormed a Moscow theater in 2002, Russian troops pumped in a gas containing carfentanil, an opiod 10,000 times more powerful than morphine. The idea was to incapacitate the terrorists, but the gas ended up killing 120 of the hostages.
Then there have been attacks using WMD not just in continental Europe, but in Britain.
In November 2006, Russian agents poisoned Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer, in a London hotel with the radioactive isotope polonium 210. He died in hospital in agony three weeks later of acute radiation poisoning. No charges were ever brought but the killers left a radiation trail stretching all the way back to Russia.
“The evidence suggests that the only credible explanation is in one way or another the Russian state is involved in Litvinenko’s murder,” concluded Scotland Yard at a non-judicial public hearing in 2014–2015. In September 2021, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia was responsible for the murder and ordered Russia to pay Litvinenko’s wife €100,000 in damages plus €22,500 in costs.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.