Chemical weapons have been used before. Could Putin use them again?

Russia At War

(NewsNation) — Last week, President Joe Biden’s administration publicly warned that Russia might use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine as officials grow increasingly concerned that President Vladimir Putin is looking to escalate his war efforts.

The warning came after Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova asserted, without evidence, that Ukraine was running chemical and biological weapons labs with U.S. support. White House press secretary Jen Psaki called Russia’s claim “preposterous.”

Military experts NewsNation spoke to are concerned that Putin could become frustrated with his army’s lack of progress and resort to more inhumane forms of warfare, including chemical weapons.

“In Putin’s playbook, but also in the Soviet-era playbook … they will escalate in order to de-escalate,” former Lt. Gen. Richard Newton told NewsNation on Sunday. “One of the tools that (Putin) could (use to) escalate and really put NATO on its heels, potentially, is the use of chemical weapons.”

Here at home, experts said the United States has plans in place to respond effectively.

“We have the strategic national stockpile of antibiotics and antidotes to chemical weapons, so we domestically have a good capability to respond but we need to improve that further, said Andrew Weber, the former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs.

But some experts believe Russia deploying outlawed weapons in Ukraine would change the minds of some people who have tried to avoid directly entering the conflict.

“Were the Russians to do this, that would represent a qualitative change in their behavior, which is going to require a qualitative change in ours,” Steven Durlauf, a professor at the University of Chicago, said on “NewsNation Prime.”

when were chemical weapons first used?

Although rare today, chemical weapons have been used on battlefields and against civilians throughout modern history, leaving mass casualties and psychological devastation behind.

Chemical weapons, including poisonous gas, were first used on a large scale during World War I by the European superpowers as an attempt to break the stalemate of trench warfare. The use of chlorine and mustard gas exacted such a toll that they, and other chemical weapons, were banned by the Geneva Protocol in 1925.

Although the agreement prohibited the use of such weapons, it did not stop countries from making and storing them or using them in retaliation to a chemical attack.

For that reason, many countries continued to develop and stockpile weapons.

Despite the Geneva Protocol’s best efforts, World War I would only serve as a precursor for chemical horrors to come.

Perhaps most notoriously, the Nazis used Zyklon B and carbon monoxide to kill millions of Jews, Slavs and other ethnic minorities in gas chambers during the Holocaust. On World War II battlefields, chemical weapons were rarely used and the western Allies did not use any at all.

In 1997, a new chemical weapons treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), went a step further and closed many of the loopholes in the Geneva Protocol. The CWC prohibited the development, production and stockpiling of chemical weapons, in addition to their use.

The new treaty also required member states to destroy their existing chemical weapons. As of Jan. 31, 99% of the world’s declared chemical weapon stockpile has been destroyed, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

So far, 193 nations have committed to chemical weapons disarmament as outlined by the CWC, but despite its widespread adoption, some signatories have continued to use them.

Syria joined the CWC in September 2013 but has been accused of using chemical weapons since then. In 2021, OPCW experts investigated 77 allegations against Syria and concluded that chemical weapons were likely or definitely used in 17 cases.

The State Department estimates that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons against the Syrian people at least 50 times, including an August 2013 incident when the Syrian government released a nerve agent in the Ghouta district of Damascus, killing more than 1,400 people during the country’s decadelong civil war.

Putin has supported Assad since the beginning of the conflict and remains a key ally.

Western officials have warned that Putin could use chemical weapons in a “false flag” attack to justify his invasion of Ukraine.

Russia used to have one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons but by September 2017 the country had destroyed the last of its declared arsenal, according to the OPCW. But after using chemical weapons to carry out assassination attempts against Putin enemies including Alexey Navalny and former spy Sergei Skripal, the elimination of the country’s chemical stockpile has been cast in doubt.

The United States is set to destroy the last of its remaining chemical weapons by 2023.

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