What is Vladimir Putin capable of? That is the question that many people are asking now that we are two weeks into the war with Ukraine. And it is the right question for people to be asking out loud. Could Putin use chemical weapons? Even more urgent, would Putin be willing to use nuclear weapons.
The humiliation that Putin seems to be facing from the brave stand that Ukrainians are taking seems to be causing Putin’s response to be even more violent. And if he has this much trouble with conventional weapons, what might he resort to?
Some of the media are reminding the world that in March of 2018, Putin used a chemical weapon against the civilian population. He poisoned Sergei Skripal in a “botched assassination attempt.” This happened right in the British town of Salisbury, which is the home to a British military establishment.
Two of Putin’s soldiers blatantly walked down a Salisbury street and in full view of 100 security cameras, they let loose a deadly nerve agent. British citizens were murdered by Putin’s Kremlin.
Fiona Hill, the former national security adviser on Russia to Donald Trump, said, “There was enough nerve agent in that bottle to kill several thousand people. It proved Putin was prepared to use any cruel and unusual weapon he has. And he wants us to know that.”
She said that Putin’s attack was meant to send the message that he is committed to hybrid warfare and it should be considered an attack on NATO. The response to this chemical terrorism was unprecedented with international cooperation. Massive sanctions were agreed upon and hundreds of Russian diplomats were expelled from embassies around the world and seen as spies.
So history has made what Putin is capable of clear. So the risk that Russia is prepared to use chemical weapons in Ukraine is high.
Last week, Russia accused Ukraine of operating chemical and biological weapons laboratories that were backed by the United States. Both countries responded by saying this was an “outright lie.” The alarm came from the belief that Russia was creating a false narrative as a pretext for using their own chemical weapons.
Ned Price, the State Department spokesperson, said that Russia has a history of accusing the West of the same crimes that they are prepared to perpetrate.
President Biden responded with a warning that there would be a “severe price” to pay if Russia uses chemical weapons in Ukraine. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that it would be a war crime.
Poland’s President Andrzej Duda said that the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine by Russia might change the strategy of the West over the war. He called that kind of action from Putin a “game-changer,” and that it would become dangerous for Europe and the whole world.
Ian Lesser is the vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund. He said that Russia is certainly capable of using chemical weapons and they already did it in Syria.
Andrew Weber, the former assistant secretary of defense for the Obama administration, not only described Russia’s history with chemical weapons but the possibility that a biological weapon could be used. The U.N. defines a biological weapon as disease-causing organisms or toxins disseminated to harm or kill humans, animals, or plants. They are used to terrorize the opponent and cause mass casualties.
Weber said that “all bets would be off” if Russia decided to do such a thing. There would be a very strong and united international response to any use of chemical or biological weapons.