Prelude to chemical weapons use?
Late yesterday evening, adviser to Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs Anton Garashchenko tweeted that Russia was using chemical weapons (CW) against the defenders of the encircled Black Sea town of Mariupol. Another statement, reportedly from the Azov regiment – notorious for its neo-Nazi ideology – defending the city, mentioned respiratory failure and vestibulo-atactic syndrome. There are references to dissemination of a toxic substance by a drone, but also that the incident has had no disastrous health consequences.
Clearly, whatever the incident may have been, it is not (yet) a situation whereby Russia has unleashed CW, as a British tabloid was happy to title an online article. We are not seeing a flood of pictures or videos suggesting a mass casualty event. Precisely because of its small-scale, the reported incident is vague and lacks much contextual detail. Ataxia groups several disorders of varying severity that include diminished coordination required for certain actions, including walking, speaking, eating and writing, or vision, and for which there is not always a clear cause. We must also consider what type of agent might have been involved, especially because of the claim of its drone delivery. Was the substance highly toxic, so a small volume could injure people on the ground? Or if it was something less toxic (say, chlorine), how much volume could a drone deliver? From what height was the agent released? What were the environmental conditions, especially wind or humidity? Where were the people, inside of outside? Just to list a few questions that come immediately to mind.
Still cause for some serious concern
While information is still extremely sketchy, there is reason for growing concern that goes beyond the loud warnings from Washington and London about Russia’s intentions to resort to chemical warfare.
The shelling of the chemical production plant in Sumy
On Saturday, 19 March Colonel-General Mikhail Mizintsev, head of the Russian National Defence Control Centre, warned according to the Russian press agency RIA Novosti that ‘In Sumy, at the Sumykhimprom chemical plant, nationalists mined storage facilities with ammonia and chlorine in order to mass poison the inhabitants of the Sumy region if units of the Russian Armed Forces entered the city.’
Two days later, on Monday, Russian artillery targeted the plant and damaged a 50-tonne tank, as a consequence of which an ammonia cloud drifted towards the nearby location of Novoselytsya where residents had to close windows and take shelter. The leak was quickly repaired and only one worker was reported injured.
Even though corrosive and toxic, nobody regards ammonia as a useful warfare agent. Being lighter than air, it dissipates fast and huge volumes would be required to achieve serious casualty-producing concentrations. Because of this, few people considered the shelling of Sumykhimprom as an incident that merits the label ‘CW use’.
This may be true. However, the definition of a CW in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) does not rely on toxicity or lethality. Instead, it covers all toxic chemicals and their precursors, except where intended for purposes not prohibited under this Convention. So, while the civilian production of ammonia for use in agriculture, as refrigerant gas or in manufacturing plastics and many other products falls outside the scope of the definition of a CW, targeting ammonia storage and production installations with the intent to exploit the compound’s toxic properties to cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals would amount to CW use.
The prior public announcement of an incident in the making by a top-level military official and the subsequent targeting of the named factory point to possible intent. While the shelling may not have had large-scale casualties as objective, it could have been part of a Russian false-flag operation to place blame on Ukrainian military units. In that case, whether Moscow ordered the shelling in yet another effort to justify the invasion, as part of psychological warfare against the civilian population, or to legitimise its own future CW attacks would not matter when qualifying the incident as violating the CWC.
Ultimatum to Mariupol
That same weekend, Russia issued an ultimatum to the defenders of Mariupol to surrender the city. This may have been an indirect condition ahead of peace talks between the two warring countries. The Ukrainians refused.
In and of itself, the incident is unrelated to possible CW use. However, it carries echoes of military operations in Syria where defenders of encircled cities or positions were offered the option to withdraw or face serious consequences. The insurgent groups and civilians who decided to retreat could leave the area; those who continued resisting faced chlorine attacks until they too abandoned their positions. The chemical attacks caused, relative to conventional operations, few casualties but with time psychological pressure increased. Once confronted with the demand to withdraw, the consequences of refusal became increasingly obvious.
Preparations for chlorine release in the Kharkiv oblast
According to Ukrainian Pravda on 6 April, Russian Ministry of Defence spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed in a speech that ‘According to confirmed information, Ukrainian special services are preparing a major provocation using toxic substances in the town of Pervomaiskyi, Kharkiv oblast. A warehouse containing 120 tons of chlorine on the territory of the Khimprom production association has been mined by the Security Service of Ukraine. The plan is to blow up this warehouse so that Russia can be accused of causing a chemical catastrophe that will kill local residents.’
Compared to the Sumy claim of the previous month, there is an escalation in the rhetoric as a consequence of the reference to ‘chlorine’. Syrian troops have repeatedly used chlorine as a weapon of war against the Syrian population between 2014 and 2018. These units were and are backed by Russian military personnel.
While no one has so far suggested that Russians were directly assisting Syria’s chemical warfare operations, Moscow has not desisted Damascus from using CW. Meanwhile, Russia’s military could observe and analyse the psychological impact of the industrial chemical on besieged populations without proper CW defences.
Preparations for chlorine release in the Lugansk region
Colonel-General Mizintsev announced another Ukrainian preparation for chemical warfare. On 10 April, according to Russian press agency TASS, he claimed that ‘Ukrainian nationalists have mined reservoirs with chlorine at a water utility in the Popyasnaya district and plan to blow them up when forces of the Lugansk People’s Republic approach the city’, adding that ‘such actions and provocation by Ukraine’s authorities once again demonstrate their inhumane attitude to the Ukrainian people and reveal their utter disregard of all norms of moral and international humanitarian law’.
Appointment of General Alexander Dvornikov
That same weekend, President Putin appointed General Alexander Dvornikov as the commander overseeing Russia’s military operations in eastern and south-eastern Ukraine following the withdrawal of forces around Kyiv and in the north.
Dvornikov led the Russian forces operating in Syria and bears responsibility for the severe bombardments of civilian targets, including the air strikes against Aleppo in 2016.
Ukraine has seen similar obliteration of towns and villages and wanton targeting of civilian infrastructure far beyond the battle lines.
Why the concern?
The sequence of events does not allow clear prediction of Russian chemical warfare operations in the near future, but taken together, they paint a picture with eerie similarities to the civil war in Syria.
Russia most likely does not have a chemical warfare capacity as usually understood. As a state party to the CWC, its declared Cold War arsenal was confirmed destroyed under supervision of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in September 2017. Since it joined the CWC in December 1997, there have been no reports of testing of major delivery systems (artillery shells, spray tanks, or missile warheads) or training of troops in offensive chemical warfare operations in larger military formations.
However, that does not preclude the resort to industrial toxic chemicals, especially in attacks designed to strike at the morale of defenders and force them to withdraw or capitulate. In that sense, the toxic chemicals would not necessarily be used in direct support of tactical manoeuvres but as part of psychological operations.
While they do not represent direct parallels with events in Ukraine, several elements nevertheless remind us of the Syrian civil war:
- Russian involvement and indiscriminate targeting of civilians, hospitals and other urban infrastructure;
- The repeated announcements of potential false-flag operations to create opportunities to blame Ukrainian defenders (similar to early Syrian allegations of insurgent plans to use toxic chemicals in 2012 and 2013) and justification for retaliation or the invasion;
- The ultimatum against Mariupol and the first more concrete allegations of CW use;
- The presence of General Alexander Dvornikov, who represents the closest link between the wars and methods of warfare in Syria and Ukraine; and
- The Russian recruitment of Syrian fighters to help with military operations in Ukraine, who could become useful stooges to blame for CW attacks carried out by Russian units. Moscow might thus hope to avoid direct responsibility for their execution.
These reminders are the source of my concern.
(Hopefully not to be followed up.)