By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS (IDN) — The retreat of Russian troops from occupied territory in Ukraine has led to widespread speculation that Moscow may use non-conventional weapons, primarily biological and chemical weapons, to beat back the Ukrainians.
In a prime-time interview on US television on September 19, US President Joe Biden said the US response to any use of “non-conventional weapons” by Russia “would be significant” but did not provide any details of possible retaliation. [2022-09-21]
Biden also warned Russia not to use chemical or tactical nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine. During an interview with CBS News, he said such action would "change the face of war unlike anything since World War Two".
In a subsequent war of words, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on September 21 he was calling up reservists in a significant escalation of the seven-month-old war, following setbacks in the battlefield.
Vowing he would use all the means at its disposal to protect what it considers its territory, Putin accused the West of nuclear blackmail and warned: “I am not bluffing.”
Although a breakdown of nuclear warheads is available in the public domain, the extent of biological and chemical weapons remains a mystery.
In a June 2022 report, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said of the total inventory of an estimated 12,705 warheads at the start of 2022, about 9,440 were in military stockpiles for potential use.
Of those, an estimated 3,732 warheads were deployed with missiles and aircraft, and around 2,000—nearly all of which belonged to Russia or the USA—were kept in a state of high operational alert.
Although Russian and US warhead inventories continued to decline in 2021, this was due to the dismantling of warheads that had been retired from military service several years ago, said SIPRI.
The number of warheads in the two countries’ useable military stockpiles remained relatively stable in 2021.
The strategic nuclear forces, which both countries deployed, were within the limits set by a bilateral nuclear arms reduction treaty (2010 Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, New START). However, that New START does not limit total non-strategic nuclear warhead inventories, according to SIPRI.
Wilfred Wan, PhD, SIPRI’s Director and Senior Researcher, Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Programme, told IDN Russia is party to both the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), which bans the development, production, stockpiling, and use of these those weapons.
The CWC includes a comprehensive verification mechanism that has overseen the destruction of 99% of the world’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles. It’s important to note, he said, that the OPCW (the implementing body of the CWC) declared Russia’s stockpile verifiably destroyed in 2017.
In recent years, he pointed out, Western states have attributed the use of Novichok-type chemical agents—notably the Skripal case in 2018—to Russian state agents, but Russia has denied these.
The US has argued that Russia “retains an undeclared chemical weapons program.” Some CWC States parties have submitted questions to Russia for clarification, but no formal accusations of non-compliance have been pursued.
On the biological side, Wan said, Russia has long committed to the destruction of the program inherited under the Soviet Union. But other States have raised concerns about its activities (in contrast to the CWC, there is no formal verification regime for the BWC), and the US alleges that Russia maintains an offensive biological weapons program in violation of the BWC.
“Given the presence of the conventions and the above though, I don’t know if the framing of strength and effectiveness of Russian biological and chemical weapons arsenals is appropriate—rather it’s about allegations made by a certain group of States about Russian activities (and potential clandestine activities) in these areas in contravention of their obligations,” he noted.
Meanwhile, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (ODA) says with the entry-into-force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on April 29, 1997, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was formally established and its Technical Secretariat is located in The Hague, the Netherlands.
Currently, 188 nations, representing about 98% of the global population, have joined the CWC.
The OPCW mission is to implement the provisions of the CWC and to ensure a credible, transparent regime to verify the destruction of chemical weapons; to prevent their re-emergence in any member State, said ODA.
The OPCW also provides protection and assistance against chemical weapons and encourages international cooperation in the peaceful uses of chemistry; and to achieve universal membership of the OPCW.
The cooperation between the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is regulated by the relationship agreement between both organisations adopted by the General Assembly in September 2001.
According to the ODA, the modern use of chemical weapons began with World War I, when both sides to the conflict used poisonous gas to inflict agonizing suffering and to cause significant battlefield casualties.
Such weapons basically consisted of well-known commercial chemicals put into standard munitions such as grenades and artillery shells. Chlorine, phosgene (a choking agent) and mustard gas (which inflicts painful burns on the skin) were among the chemicals used.
The results were indiscriminate and often devastating. Nearly 100,000 deaths resulted. Since World War I, chemical weapons have caused more than one million casualties globally.
As a result of public outrage, the Geneva Protocol, which prohibited the use of chemical weapons in warfare, was signed in 1925. While a welcome step, the Protocol had a number of significant shortcomings, including the fact that it did not prohibit the development, production or stockpiling of chemical weapons, according to ODA.
Also problematic was the fact that many States that ratified the Protocol reserved the right to use prohibited weapons against States that were not party to the Protocol or as retaliation in kind if chemical weapons were used against them.
Poison gases were used during World War II in Nazi concentration camps and in Asia, although chemical weapons were not used on European battlefields.
The Cold War period saw significant development, manufacture and stockpiling of chemical weapons. By the 1970s and 80s, an estimated 25 States were developing chemical weapons capabilities.
But since the end of World War II, said ODA, chemical weapons have reportedly been used in only a few cases, notably by Iraq in the 1980s against the Islamic Republic of Iran. [IDN-InDepthNews – 21 September 2022]
Photo: Biological weapons. Source: Australian Institute of International Affairs