Could a Chemical Weapons Attack Be in the Ukrainian War?

Since the war in Ukraine actually began, the media has reported on the possible use of toxic chemical agents by both sides. Ukrainian authorities filed their first complaint in April 2022, when they reported that a drone fired an unidentified white toxic substance at the Azovstal steel plant in the city of Mariupol.

Despite investigations by Ukrainian allies, this hypothetical attack and others reported later have not been confirmed by EU chiefs or the U.S. Department of Defense, despite an intense propaganda, misinformation and propaganda campaign. False news Mainly from Russia.

During World War I, both opposing sides mass-produced weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons. At the time, they were gas poisons and foaming agents such as chlorine, phosgene, diphosgene, nettle gas, or mustard gas, which caused blistering lesions that developed and healed poorly, killing 1.3 million people.

During World War II, Nazi Germany developed so-called neurotoxic substances (Tabun, Sarin, Soman), but fortunately, they were never used in this conflict. However, research and development of nerve agents continued in the United States, Great Britain, and especially the Soviet Union after the war.

How do nerve agents work?

Nerve agents are characterized by irreversible inhibition of acetylcholinesterase, the enzyme responsible for the metabolism of acetylcholine at nerve synapses.

Thus, an excess of acetylcholine can cause symptoms of intoxication, manifested as miosis, conjunctivitis, cough, difficulty breathing, cyanosis, cardiac arrhythmia, rash, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, tremors, convulsions, or confusion. If the dose is high enough, it can cause cardiorespiratory failure and death within minutes.

Western agencies estimate that Russia has amassed over 80,000 tons of chemical agents since Soviet times, which would make Russia the first in the world to possess all types of chemical weapons (from conventional Lewis, mustard gas, and phosgene, to chemical weapons) s country. neurotoxic substances such as sarin and VX).

In addition, between 1970 and 1990, a fourth-generation nerve agent called Novichok (“new man” in Russian), derived from the G- and V-series agents, was developed under a secret program. In the “Foliant” program, with the support of the Ministry of Defense of the USSR.

These substances are eight times more toxic than the Russian VX agent, and some are more volatile, while others are solid. Furthermore, they are safe substances to transport and store, and their effects are untreatable, which is why they are considered the deadliest nerve agents ever created.

It must also be remembered that some of these Novichok agents have not been listed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) because they are chemically similar to most organophosphate agents used as insecticides and pesticides in agriculture. Herbicides, and they’re not phosphates, like most of the chemical weapons included in these lists.

This makes them ideal substances for deceiving inspectors and avoiding inclusion on lists of controlled chemical agents, which, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s report in 2017 that the entire chemical weapons arsenal had been destroyed, has failed in terms of prevention and control. make any progress. his country.

All of this makes Novichok an excellent tool for terrorist purposes. Suffice it to recall the 2018 assassination of ex-CIA officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia near a shopping center in Salisbury, England. The use of technology will do.

Members of Britain’s emergency services in protective gear remove the bench where Sergei Skripal and Yulia Skripal were poisoned by Novichok in the town of Salisbury.

The attack prompted the OPCW’s decision to explicitly ban Novichok on 27 November 2019. More recently, however, Russia has once again targeted Russian dissident and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny and Novichok, who is not on the OPCW’s review list. On August 20, 2020, on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. The incidents show that such chemical weapons are far from being contained, and it is unclear what types of toxic substances Russia has and how much it has in stockpiles.

Why are these dangerous weapons less likely to be used?

All of these data affect the danger of using such threats of war in the Ukraine war. These agents can be delivered by artillery shells, missiles or spray devices mounted on drones or other types of aircraft. However, it is difficult for the Russian Federation to justify its use for a number of reasons:

  1. Like Ukraine, Russia is a signatory to the OPCW Convention, which prohibits the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances (except production and stockpiling), failure to comply will result in being banned by all international regulatory organizations and conflict controllers expulsion.

  2. Its use would mean a substantial escalation of the conflict, the consequences of which, especially for Russia, could be devastating. The NATO secretary general has warned that this type of attack could affect neighboring allies, which would reconsider NATO’s position in the conflict.

  3. After the “hypothetical” destruction of Russia’s chemical arsenal, the implementation of mechanisms to create new deposits has become more complicated because the international community has developed export control instruments, such as the group known as Australia’s Chemical and Biological Export Control Group (1984) or Proliferation Security Initiative (Madrid, 2003), whose objective is to stop the sale and purchase of such weapons, the technologies associated with their manufacture, and dual-use materials.

  4. The deterrent power of the media is enormous, with the conflict being broadcast live through the media and social networks, and given the brutality of chemical attacks, their use will have enormously damaging effects.

Why do they pose a real threat to European security?

But there are two extremely dangerous situations that could pose a real security threat: strategic “false-flag” attacks designed to justify a broader later use of these toxic substances in response to “prior provocations,” and specific state terrorism Operation, the Russians have notorious experience in using Novichok-type agents, but it is not ruled out that non-state actors may use them for undefined terrorist purposes.

This will create a sense of terror and panic among the population that is typical of the targets of terrorist groups, amplified through its media effect. The likelihood of this happening is multiplied if these groups have the implicit and financial backing of government actors.

However, while the illicit circulation of chemical raw materials markets reflects the existence of a little-known parallel market, the use of chemical agents to carry out terrorist attacks can be considered “unlikely”.

At present, Russia’s use of chemical weapons in the Ukraine war, especially Novichok, seems unlikely, and although there are real concerns that such a threat will directly affect the security of the European Union, there are still many uncertainties. To be clarified.

In any case, as UN Resolution 687 of 1991 stated, these weapons pose a real threat to “world peace and security” and should be absolutely eliminated.

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