Russia and Ukraine, the Chemical and Biological threat with a touch of Nuclear
By Philip Ingram MBE
The Russian messaging machine has gone into overdrive on its claims that the Ukraine and the US are developing chemical or biological weapons for use against invading Russian forces, as they brought the accusation to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on Friday. So that is the reality, a question I have been asked frequently by many press outlets in the past 24 hours?
At the end of February Vladimir Putin issued a statement where he raised the alert level of his nuclear forces and later his Foreign Minister Lavrov blamed comments from the British Foreign Secretary for forcing them to do so. This one act of putting your foot on the nuclear escalatory ladder then taking it off again says so much about Russia’s approach to diplomacy.
Russia has a policy of “escalate to de-escalate” so threatening the unthinkable to then back down is something in their psyche but they also have a history of following thorough, in particular when it comes to bombing, rocketing and shelling civilian built up areas and in Syria, helping to facilitate the use of chemical weapons.
In Ukraine, Russia’s invasion has become bogged down and in some areas fixed. They have little freedom to manoeuvre. That is why we are seeing what many refer to as the playbook tactics being rolled out. Whenever Russia has been fixed or bogged down in the past, they have rapidly resorted to surrounding cities and pounding them from the air, with rockets, missiles and artillery, in an indiscriminate manner, all to try and break the resolve of the people.
The agreement for humanitarian corridors and ceasefires is also playbook stuff as is mining those routes and shelling fleeing civilians. Again, looking at the response from the international community in the past to these atrocities, there has been none; Russia has been allowed to get away with it.
Many of the commanders involved in invasion of Ukraine will have served in Syria, some may even have been in Grozny in 2008, but that playbook tactics will be in their psyche, Putin likely won’t even have had to order it as it will have been in the wider contingency plans for cities showing too much resistance. What Russia hadn’t expected was that is every city! The last time this level of resolve was shown, in Syria, to break the deadlock, Chemical weapons were employed.
It is that playbook combined with the statements from official Russian MoD channels and the calling of the UNSC meeting that makes the threat of use of chemical weapons in Ukraine all the more real.
I will dismiss biological weapons quickly by saying they are not an act of war. Biological weapons are very difficult to weaponise into battlefield delivery system and their effects more difficult to control. You also need superb medial facilities for your own troops in case of accidental exposure, and the Russians don’t.
However, a real threat doesn’t automatically translate into their actual use. Key to this is that in Syria, Putin had a plausibly deniable outlet for blame when the international community called out the false flag attacks blamed on the Syrian opposition fighters, he could blame Assad and say he was misled too. This is a combination of маскировка (maskirovka), masking the truth behind disinformation and враньё(vranyo), which means to tell a lie without expecting to be believed, both are frequently exercised Putin tactics.
There are 2 scenarios where Putin may use chemical weapons in Ukraine, one is in a false flag incident in the vicinity of a Ukrainian research facility giving an excuse for him to go to the Russian people as say, “told you so, this is why we have to invade all of Ukraine.” This remains a possibility but the fact that western intelligence has already called it out may take that option off the table as it has done before with other potential false flag incidents.
The second is horrific, Putin uses chemical weapons in order to break the blockades around Ukrainian cities. Here I am going to assess this as being less likely to unlikely as no matter what messaging Putin puts out, he knows that personally this gives him nowhere to hide within an international context, ever. He may be a psychopath, but he is in some ways still rational. He knows that use of chemical weapons would have to be authorised by him and that would mean automatic prosecution and a massive withdrawal of the tacit ‘turning a blind eye,’ he is getting from the likes of China and India. His pariah status would be further set in stone; irrecoverably so.
He also doesn’t need to go there yet. He has much more he can do with conventional military capabilities, if he can manoeuvre them and support them logistically, in this case that if is probably the biggest word in the English language. He can threaten other disasters such as nuclear meltdowns in Ukraine’s nuclear facilities currently under Russian control but blame that on counter attacking Ukrainians. He has much more conventional terror to rain down on Ukraine’s cities before he even needs to consider the unthinkable.
The worrying final issue is no matter what the outcome, Putin has lost this war. He has failed, his military have failed. He has strengthened the Ukrainian people as a nation, strengthened the international community including the EU, caused the conditions for possible further NATO expansion.
Sun Tzu says, “Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.” Putin’s forces didn’t listen and are fixed. Unless there is a palace coup in Moscow, this conflict could go on for a long time with all of the associated suffering and deaths. The only other tiny green shoot of hope is that the Russians are becoming so fixed, that if the Ukrainian defenders can generate manoeuvre capabilities to counterattack, their time to push the Russian back in a significant way could come. Supporting the Ukrainian defenders more and enabling them to become attackers is the Wests next logical step.
Philip Ingram MBE is a former senior British Military Intelligence Officer and NATO Planner and is available for comment.