“Chemical weapons at the heart of information warfare”

Sciences et Avenir: “It is clear that Vladimir Putin plans to use chemical and biological weapons [en Ukraine]”, US President Joe Biden said on March 21, 2022, adding a few days later that such a scenario would lead to a “NATO response.” What sources would these warnings be based on?

Olivier Lepic: Neither the Americans nor any of the Western leaders have so far cited concrete evidence or information, especially from satellite data. Recently I was able to raise this topic with NATO officials. And it looks like it’s more of a fear than a security-backed threat. The statements of Joe Biden or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are, in my opinion, first of all, a semantic escalation, an information war being played out between NATO and Putin’s Russia. So I see it more as a warning, a way to discourage Russia if it considers using chemical weapons in Ukraine.

Sarin gas, chlorine and mustard gas were used during the Syrian civil war by Putin-backed Bashar al-Assad.

What is the origin of this semantic escalation?

On March 9, Russia itself accused the US Department of Defense of funding and covering up a bioweapons program in Ukraine, even saying evidence had been found. But these far-fetched claims were aimed primarily at Russian public opinion: they were supposed to serve and contribute, in retrospect, to justify “special military operations” in Ukraine, that is, an invasion of the country. However, some analysts saw this as a sign that Russia would also seek to get ahead of the topic. If the Kremlin was spreading false information about unconventional American weapons in Ukraine, then it should have silenced responsibility and legalized their use, in particular, chemical weapons.

Are other arguments fueling this fear?

Indeed there are others. During the Syrian civil war, where Bashar al-Assad was backed and armed by Vladimir Putin, sarin, chlorine and mustard gas were used several times between 2013 and 2017, in particular against civilians. In addition, in 2018 and 2020, respectively, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny were assassinated with Novichok-type nerve agents. These are organophosphate molecules, which also include a chlorine atom, that inhibit acetylcholinesterase, the enzyme itself involved in the transmission of nerve impulses at synapses and neuromuscular junctions. However, this extremely toxic, latest-generation chemical weapon suggests that Russia would not have destroyed all of its stockpiles or its research capabilities in this area, as it claims.

Investigators in the UK at the site of the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal. CreditAFP.

What will be the state of Russian stocks?

Like almost all countries, Russia signed and then ratified in 1997 the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which concerns not only the use, but also the development, production and stockpiling of these weapons. They themselves are defined as “a chemical substance used to cause death or other harm by its toxic effect”. And this convention lists one hundred products and precursors. So, in 2017, under the control of international inspectors and after twenty years of as difficult as painstaking work, Russia announced the destruction of almost 40,000 tons of chemical weapons, that is, its entire declared arsenal. Developed after World War II, it included a full arsenal of chemical warfare agents: relatively old blisters such as dichloroethyl sulfide, also known as “mustard gas”, which causes severe skin burns and can blind or suffocate; hemotoxic substances that poison the blood; but especially neurotoxic agents that act on nerve cells and made up the bulk of the fund.

Destruction of the last suspected Russian stockpile of chemical weapons at Kizner in 2017. Credit from the Ministry of Industry of Russia.

Phosphorus bombs are not chemical weapons: therefore, they are not prohibited by the treaty ratified in 1997.

What is the lethality and military use of these weapons?

They can be used in a relatively broad tactical context. Because these weapons can be very lethal, especially the latest generation of organophosphorus poisons, which are on the order of a milligram of toxicity. And since most of these substances also pass through the epidermis, a simple respiratory mask does not protect against them. Therefore, to conduct combat operations in an area contaminated with this type of weapon, it is necessary to wear complete and completely waterproof suits, called “CBRN”, which makes combat conditions extremely difficult. Degree of destruction is certainly less important than for biological or nuclear weapons. Thus, chemical weapons occupy, so to speak, an intermediate position between conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction. However, like the latter, they are not discriminatory. They target the military just as much as they target the civilian population, which de facto are not protected by special suits, which sows terror and leads to a large number of victims, as was the case in Syria.

Will the scenario of an attack on civilians be repeated in Ukraine?

This is indeed another argument that could refute Joe Biden’s claims: Russia could have resorted to chemical weapons to intimidate the civilian population and try to break the admirable resistance of the Ukrainian people and their army. But then again, I hope I’m not mistaken, I don’t believe in a chemical escalation in the Ukrainian theater. Because the tactical benefit for Vladimir Putin will be very small, and the strategic cost will be huge. I don’t see what Russia would gain from this other than more outrage from the international community and more sanctions.

And what about the phosphorus bombs that Russia was supposed to use on March 22 near Kiev?

These bombs, which give off bright flashes and leave white streaks in the sky, are categorized as incendiary weapons. The 1983 Convention on Conventional Weapons limits their use to military purposes, prohibiting any use against civilians or densely populated areas. But it’s not a chemical weapon. Therefore, they are not prohibited by the treaty ratified in 1997.

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