Why the U.S. fears Russia's potential use of chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine passes its third week, the U.S. is carefully watching for any possible decision from Moscow on the use of chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine.

Washington has accused Russia of falsely claiming that the U.S. is working with Ukraine to develop a chemical and biological weapons program. “Russia has a track record of accusing the West of the very crimes that Russia itself is perpetrating,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement on March 9. “These tactics are an obvious ploy by Russia to try to justify further premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attacks on Ukraine.”

President Biden warned last Friday that if Russia were to use such weapons, there would be a “severe price” to pay.

To understand how chemical and biological weapons work, why they’re controversial and the kind of destruction they cause, Yahoo News spoke to Daniel Gerstein, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, an American global policy think tank. He was previously acting undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security. (The interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.)

Yahoo News: What is a chemical weapon, how do they work, and what are some examples?

Daniel Gerstein: Chemical weapons, we generally think of as chemically derived material. But to be classified as a chemical weapon, we would also marry it up with some device for dispersal. When we talk about chemical weapons, we generally shorthand it, and we have a number of families of chemical weapons that we have had concerns about historically, and that are on the list, if you will, for the Chemical Weapons Convention. We have things like choking agents, and that would include something like chlorine. Blister agents would be mustard gas. Blood agents: hydrogen cyanide. Nerve agents: such as VX nerve agent or sarin nerve agent. The one we've heard a lot about here recently is also a nerve agent called Novichok. It's the one that was used in the attempted assassination of Alexei Navalny [a Russian opposition leader], as well as Sergei Skripal [a former Russian double agent, and his daughter, Yulia] in the U.K. And then the latest, I would have to add a new column, and that is the opioids, the fentanyls, which we're hearing a lot about. [In the October 2002 Moscow theater siege by Chechen gunmen, it is believed that a gas based on fentanyl was used by Russian special forces that killed not only the attackers but hostages as well.]

Why are chemical weapons controversial, and are they banned?

Throughout history, going back to the antiquities of people using toxins as poisons to do assassinations and such, but more recently, of course, in World War I, we saw the horrendous outcomes, the massive casualties, well over a million who were killed using chemical weapons, predominantly the types of choking agents that might include chlorine and phosgene. But the reason that we came up with prohibitions on the use of chemicals is because of the horrific use of them on the battlefield. And even as tools of assassinations, as we've seen, or as terror weapons. In 1993, we had a negotiation that resulted in the Chemical Weapons Convention. That convention entered into force in 1997, and it's the type of arms control agreement that limits, according to a list, the types of chemicals and precursor chemicals and other materials that states can possess.

This is actually a very tricky thing, because there are dual uses of some of the chemicals that are on the lists. For example, some of the same chemicals that one might use in developing pesticides would also be very dangerous if they were used in a chemical weapon against humans, and so ensuring that legitimate purposes of chemicals can continue, while illegitimate uses are prevented.

Another example that we saw, [in] Syria, which is interesting, is the use of not just nerve agents, but they also used toxic industrial chemicals, such as chlorine. Chlorine as a chemical weapon can be very effective. When it's inhaled, it gets into the lungs, it combines with the moisture in the lungs, the water in the lungs, and it actually creates hydrochloric acid, which winds up killing the victim. We certainly want to think about prohibiting the uses of both the chemical weapons themselves but also toxic industrial chemicals that could be utilized as these weapons of mass destruction.

What are biological weapons?

They are weapons that have been developed using biological material, and they are combined with some means of dispersal in order to become biological weapons. There are really three categories that we want to think about. The first are bacterial agents, the second is viral agents, and then toxins that are derived from bacteria and viruses.

When we talk about bacterial [agents], many of us in the United States are familiar with the use of anthrax. Anthrax is a bacterial agent. In 2001, it was put into the mail system through a series of letters, and it did kill five people and sickened 22 others. Others that we talk about, throughout history, are things like bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis. We also like to think about tularemia, or rabbit fever.

When we talk about viral, a number come to mind. We could talk about smallpox, which was a scourge over the history of humanity, actually — it goes all the way back to the early days of humans, we see evidence of smallpox infections. Ebola is another one. Ebola is both dangerous as a naturally occurring disease, but it's also interesting in that there have been attempts to weaponize Ebola, to marry it up with a delivery system and use it as a weapon of mass destruction. There are other viral hemorrhagic fevers that could be used as weapons of mass destruction.

When we talk about toxins, one that you are probably familiar with, but more from its name rather than its scientific name, is Botox, or clostridium botulinum, which produces botulinum neurotoxin. Botulinum neurotoxin is a very deadly compound. If somebody is infected with it, it can kill by preventing them from respirating, which means they would either have to have CPR or mechanical ventilation or be on a ventilator until it's left their system. It's a very dangerous toxin. There are other toxins, such as staphylococcus enterotoxin B, which we thought about using when we had a former offensive U.S. program. In any case, marrying up the toxin and the means of delivery or the bacteria or virus would then create your biological weapon.

Are biological weapons banned?

They certainly are banned under the Biological Weapons Convention, the BWC as we call it, [which] was negotiated in 1972 and entered into force in 1975. It is unique in terms of an arms control treaty. It is the first treaty to completely ban an entire class of weapons. The only way in which you can have these pathogens is if they're for the three P’s: preventive, prophylactic or peaceful purposes. With biotechnology today, we see a lot of use for making vaccines, using, say, viruses. They've obviously been modified, but using viruses to be able to deliver an immunological response. There are reasons why you would do experiments with it. For a defensive purpose, you would want to have small quantities to be able to develop diagnostics and medical countermeasures and vaccines, but in terms of their use as a weapon, it is absolutely prohibited. There are no circumstances under which it would be acceptable.

What is behind Russia’s potential 'false flag' tactic?

The Russians have made the claim that we think is leading up to a "false flag" operation [an intentional misrepresentation to justify an action], that Ukraine might be thinking about using either chemical or biological weapons as a means of attack. [I] worked on the program [during the Obama administration] that administered what we worked with the Ukrainians, on what was called the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. This was a bipartisan program by Sens. [Richard] Lugar, [R-Ind.], and [Sam] Nunn [D-Ga.]. The intent was that after the Soviet Union was dissolved and the [Berlin] Wall came down, all of the weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities and capabilities that had been developed by the Soviet Union (and after it broke up, in the former states of the Soviet Union) would be destroyed and ... returned to peaceful purposes. If it wasn't destroyed, the scientists would find another means of working — perhaps in the same field — but instead of thinking about weaponization, thinking about things such as developing vaccines and medical countermeasures.

Our program was designed to go into these countries and find where they had been doing this work. In the case of biological material, we generally took what were available as their strain repositories for the various strains of biological material, and we put them into a consolidated location, according to Western standards. In some cases we built them laboratory facilities. In other cases, we just gave them equipment, newer equipment that would allow them to safely handle any pathogens.

And you may say, "Well, why would they need this to retain pathogens?" Many countries around the world have some sort of endemic disease. Being able to retain strain collections for those diseases to do research, and to do all of that in a safe and secure environment, is very important.

Why is the U.S. on high alert after Russia’s false claim about chemical and biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine?

Obviously, we're concerned from the standpoint of a humanitarian catastrophe. We've seen how effective [chemical and biological weapons] can be: Literally thousands of people can be killed in a single attack. And with regard to chemical weapons, in particular, you can think about the chemical weapons being deployed, and there are people who are in underground bunkers in subways. They're in basements, and chlorine would actually settle into those areas and they could kill very large numbers of people. With respect to the biological weapons, one of our big concerns should be: If they attacked one of the facilities that had some of these pathogens that had been properly categorized and stored, and then they were to be hit by ammunition, you could have these biological pathogens just released into the open. That could be very catastrophic.

There are significant policy implications. Here you have Russia, which is a member of both the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Should they conduct a false flag operation, they are crossing some significant nonproliferation red lines — and that is not something to be taken lightly. We do not want to see the return to the use of chemical weapons or any use of biological weapons. It is just abhorrent to humanity. And this should not be part of the battlefield repertoire.