Why the U.S. fears Russia’s potential use of chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine: Yahoo News Explains

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 in a potential “false flag” operation. 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.

Video Transcript


JEN PSAKI: Russia has a history also of inventing outright lies like this, which is the suggestion that the United States has a chemical and biological weapons program, or Ukraine does that they're operating. Russia is the one, is the country that has a chemical and biological weapons program. They not only have the capacity. They have a history of using chemical and biological weapons. And that in this moment, we should have our eyes open for that possibility.


DANIEL GERSTEIN: Chemical weapons, we generally think of as chemically-derived material. But to be a chemical weapon, to be classified as a chemical weapon, we would also marry it up with some sort of device for dispersal. So just some examples of chemical weapons, 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, called Novichok, is the one that was used in the attempted assassination of Alexei Navalny as well as Sergei Skripal in the UK. And then the latest, I guess I would have to add kind of a new column. And that is the opioids, the fentanyls, which we're hearing a lot about.


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.

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 types of choking agents that I described earlier that might include chlorine and phosgene.

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. And chlorine as a chemical weapon can be very effective. When it's inhaled, it gets into the lungs. And it combines with the moisture in the lungs. And it actually creates hydrochloric acid, which winds up killing the victim.


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. And so 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.

And, you know, this is actually a very tricky thing because there are dual uses of some of the chemicals that are on the lists. So, 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.


So biological weapons are exactly as they sound. They are weapons that have been developed using biological material. And they are combined with some sort of 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.

Now when we talk about bacterial, 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.

When we talk about viral, a number come to mind. I mean, 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, you know, one that you're probably familiar with but more from its name rather than its scientific name is Botox or Clostridium botulinum, which produces botulinum neurotoxin, a very deadly compound. And 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 to have-- until they're-- until it left their system. So it's a very dangerous toxin. In any case, marrying up the toxin and the means of delivery or the bacteria or virus would then create your biological weapon.


They certainly are banned under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. The BWC, as we call it, was negotiated in 1972. And it entered into force in 1975. And 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 are for the 3 Ps, Preventive, Prophylactic, or Peaceful Purposes. With biotechnology today, we see a lot of uses for making vaccines using 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.

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Ukraine does not have a biological weapons program. There are no Ukrainian biological weapons laboratories supported by the United States, not near Russia's border or anywhere. So here are the facts. Ukraine owns and operates its own public health laboratory infrastructure.

These facilities make it possible to detect and diagnose diseases like COVID-19, which benefit us all. The United States has assisted Ukraine to do this safely and securely. This is work that has been done proudly, clearly, and out in the open.

DANIEL GERSTEIN: And having worked on the program-- years ago, I was in the Obama administration-- the program that administered what we worked with the Ukrainians on was called the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program. And this is a program, bipartisan, by senators Lugar and Nunn.

And the intent was that after the Soviet Union was dissolved and the wall came down, the idea was that all of the weapons of mass destruction facilities and capabilities that had been developed by the Soviet Union and after it broke up to the former states of the Soviet Union would be destroyed and either return to peaceful purposes if it wasn't destroyed, and that 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.

With respect to the biological weapons, here, I think 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 [? a ?] [? munition. ?] You could have these biological pathogens just released into the open. And that could be very catastrophic.

There are very significant policy implications. I mean, here you have Russia, which is a member of both the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. And should they conduct a false flag operation, they are crossing some very significant non-proliferation 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 just humanity. And this should not be part of the battlefield repertoire.