Ukraine war: fear of chemical weapons use is growing – how an expert assesses the danger
Berlin The reports came late Monday evening: Russia is said to have used chemical weapons in Mariupol. This is what the Ukrainian Azov regiment claims, one of several paramilitary volunteer battalions.
According to the Azov-Telegram channel, an unknown substance was dropped from a drone over the long-contested city. Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region deny using chemical weapons. This is reported by the Russian news agency Interfax, citing Eduard Bassurin, a separatist commander. The information cannot be independently verified. The public Ukrainian TV broadcaster Suspilne also reported that there was no confirmation from official bodies.
According to Ukrainian sources, those affected by the substance suffered from breathing difficulties and movement disorders. Former Azov commander Andry Biletsky reported three people with symptoms of poisoning.
According to reports from Mariupol wrote British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss on Twitter, we are working with partners to verify details. Any use of such weapons would be an escalation for which Russian President Vladimir Putin and his leadership would be held accountable.
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Shortly before the alleged attack, Russia apparently threatened to use chemical weapons in Mariupol. But does Russia actually have such weapons, and if so, how many? The most important questions and answers.
Does Russia have chemical weapons?
Concrete information about a possible stock of chemical weapons is difficult to obtain: the German Federal Ministry of Defense refers to the Chancellery for questions about findings on Russian chemical weapons. The Chancellery declines. Great secrecy applies in such a sensitive area.
Science cannot help either: Neither the Leopoldina, nor the German Research Foundation, nor the Bundeswehr universities can provide experts. Finally, well-founded information is provided by the chemist Ralf Trapp, who worked for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague for 13 years and advises the United Nations and the European Union.
He points out that the Soviet Union had the world’s largest chemical weapons program in history. That the then President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed with the USA in 1990 on the disclosure and controlled destruction of the stocks.
In 2017, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed the destruction of all Russian chemical weapons. “According to everything we know, there can no longer be any larger stocks in Russia today,” says Trapp.
If Putin has started a new program in the meantime, “the West would probably know, because larger productions cannot be easily hidden. The installations would have been identified by air reconnaissance with a fair degree of certainty. In addition, Russia would then also have to test these weapons, which would also be noticed.”
Trapp also thinks it is unlikely that Putin would use chemical weapons in Ukraine, because “to be militarily effective, it would have to be done on a large scale, meaning hundreds or even thousands of tons.”
However, he warns: “If you use chemical weapons against civilians who don’t have protective equipment, you can have a significant impact even with small amounts.”
All of this applies to chemical warfare agents in the narrower sense, which are used purely for military purposes. The situation is different for substances that occur in large quantities in industry, such as chlorine gas.
Can Russia use chlorine gas in the Ukraine war?
Chlorine as a poison gas was used across the board as early as the First World War. The first major operation took place on April 22, 1915 in Flanders by a German special unit, which was advised by the later Nobel Prize winner Fritz Haber, shortly afterwards by the French.
The last mission to date took place in Syria in 2017 and 2018. The OPCW assumes that the Assad regime’s armed forces were responsible for this – “but the Russians were militarily fully integrated with the Syrian armed forces, so they know how to do it,” says Trapp.
In the military, chlorine gas is used after a conventional air raid, for example, when people have fled to the basement. When chlorine gas, which is heavier than air, is then released, it creeps into basements and suffocates the victims or forces them to flee into the open.
Chlorine gas is considered an effective chemical weapon
Chlorine gas is therefore an extremely deadly weapon – but above all it is also an industrial gas that is used, for example, to treat drinking water and to clean swimming pools.
Because it is produced in very large quantities, it is not on the control lists of the Chemical Weapons Convention, “because production and stocks could not be effectively controlled,” explains Trapp. “So, in theory, Russia could easily deploy it with improvised means, and with a very effective effect.”
The military effect would be regionally limited, but could result in many deaths, especially in densely populated areas. Since the gas dissipates after a few hours, the attacking troops could then enter the area without gas masks.
Even a small, targeted operation would be “very effective in spreading fear and terror,” says Trapp.
How important is the fear of chemical weapons?
“The history of chemical weapons shows that the psychological component is sometimes even more effective than the sheer number of victims, i.e. the horror effect that is achieved when a power threatens to use it or even gives the impression that it could if it wanted to.” , says Trapp.
“Sometimes that’s enough to make people panic. There are even cases in which they then complained about symptoms, although no chemical weapons were definitely used, only haze and dust were stirred up,” adds the expert.
Is Novichok suitable as a chemical weapon?
The group of Novichok neurotoxins (Russian for “newcomer”) only became known worldwide in 2018 through the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia in London and above all through the attack on Russian dissident Alexei Navalny in 2020.
However, the poison had been developed in Russia since the 1970s. Despite Gorbachev’s promise to eliminate chemical weapons, Novichok was secretly researched at least until the 1990s. It is one of the strongest neurotoxins of all, with skin contact the lethal dose is about one milligram.
The existence of Novichok was revealed in 1991 by the Russian chemist Wil Mirsayanow, who was involved in the development, but his publications met with little response. The reason today is that the West generally did not want to jeopardize the chemical weapons agreement by asking Russia to report these toxins as well – and to destroy them.
Novichok was only included in the list of banned nerve agents in 2019. So far, however, no state has reported stocks.
It is completely unclear in what quantities Russia could have Novichok poisons. “They were originally part of the military development program, so there was already an intention to use them in bombs or artillery,” explains Trapp.
But Novichok poisons are – unlike other warfare agents – “as far as we know never went into large-scale production,” says the expert. However, the production of smaller quantities “would probably not have been noticed”.
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