Where have chemical weapons been used, and are they really a red line for the West?

US President Joe Biden attends a press conference after the special NATO summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, March 24. (Michael Kappelle/picture alliance/Getty Images)

US President Joe Biden said on Thursday that NATO would react if Russia used chemical weapons in Ukraine, and previously warned that Moscow would “pay a heavy price” if it did.

The use of such weapons against the Ukrainian people would mark a dramatic escalation of the Russian invasion and would likely require heavy retaliation from the West.

But concerns are growing that Russia may be considering taking the plunge, after the Kremlin seeded the unsubstantiated idea that Ukraine and the United States could use the weapons. “It’s a sign that they’re setting themselves up to do it and then trying to blame it on someone else,” US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said earlier this month. .

Why would their use be so important? Chemical weapons contain toxic substances designed to cause death or injury to their targets. They can spread dangerous chemicals, including chokes, blisters and nerve agents, which can attack the body and cause death on a large scale, indiscriminately and over a wide area if deployed indoors. a bomb or an artillery shell.

Their use is prohibited by international law. Russia has signed these treaties and claims it does not possess chemical weapons, but the country has previously been linked to the use of nerve agents against critics in recent years. These cases include the poisonings of Alexander Litvinenko, Sergei Skripal and Alexey Navalny.

A painful story: Widespread horror at the use of chemical agents during World War I culminated in the Geneva Protocol, signed in 1925, which prohibited chemical weapons attacks.

Nevertheless, as many as 25 countries worked to develop chemical weapons during the Cold War, according to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. Protracted negotiations eventually led to the adoption of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1992, obliging nations to destroy their stockpiles and prohibiting the development, production or use of chemical weapons.

There have, however, been limited occasions where they have been used in combat – and those occasions have resulted in political fallout around the world.

Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used a variety of chemical weapons against Iran during the 1980s, and their use in Syria over the past decade has led to the threat of US intervention in Iran’s civil war. this country.

The attacks in Ghouta in 2013 and Khan Sheikhoun in 2017 both involved the alleged use of sarin gas, a nerve agent banned under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

In 2013, the use of the gas, reported by United Nations investigators, crossed one of President Barack Obama’s self-proclaimed red lines, but no military action took place. Instead, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) visited Syria to monitor the destruction of the country’s chemical weapons program.

Warnings to Russia: While Biden’s statement may conjure up memories of Obama’s ill-fated “red line” warning in 2013, the current US president has a united NATO on his side.

On Thursday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance would strengthen its chemical, biological and nuclear defense systems amid fears over Russia’s intentions.

In a joint statement on Thursday, G7 leaders warned Russia against using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

“Any use by Russia of chemical or biological weapons ‘would be a violation of all existing rules, agreements and conventions,’ German Chancellor Olaf Scholz added. “We can only say: don’t don’t!


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