Early reports from drone attacks on Monday suggest that chemical weapons could have been used in the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The reports could not be immediately or independently verified at the time of this publication. However, world leaders in NATO as well as the Biden administration, along with international military analysts have warned there is a potential for chemical weapons use based on Putin's historical endorsement of using sarin in Syria. Russia has also utilized chemical weapons in assassination attempts.
A unit of Ukrainian soldiers, named the Azov Regiment, claimed on Telegram on Monday April 11, 2022:
About an hour ago, Russian occupation forces used a poisonous substance of unknown origin against Ukrainian military and civilians in the city of Mariupol, which was dropped from an enemy UAV. The victims have respiratory failure, vestibulo-atactic syndrome. The consequences of using an unknown substance are being clarified.
Earlier that day, Eduard Basurin who is a spokesperson for Russia in Donetsk, detailed the struggles of capturing a steel mill held by the Azov regiment citing that the mill has underground areas and is well-fortified.
We could have a lot of our soldiers killed, and the enemy won’t suffer casualties. That’s why currently we should figure out how to block this mill and find all ways in and out. And after that we should ask our chemical forces to find a way to smoke these moles out of their holes.
This statement is on the heels of unfounded Russian claims that Ukraine has chemical and biological weapons. These claims have been referred to as "false flag" claims that are meant to bolster support for the Russian use of chemical weapons against Ukrainian fighters, while distracting from Russia's possible use of these weapons.
The Chemical Weapons Convention
In 1993, the Chemical Weapons Convention was developed to prohibit the development, production stockpiling and use of chemical weapons as well as outline the rules for the destruction of declared or known caches or stockpiles. Russia is a signatory of this convention.
There are 5 types of chemical weapons recognized by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) - choking agents, blister agents, blood agents, nerve agents and riot control agents.
Choking agents mainly effect the respiratory tract causing irritation, choking, swelling and fluid secretion in the lung, nose and mouth. Typically dispersed as a gas, these include phosgene, chlorine, diphosgene and other variations of these toxins.
Blister agents can effect many body systems, including respiratory, skin and mucosal areas such as the eyes, mouth and nose. Blister agents, or vesicants, have several methods of dispersal that include liquid, aerosol, vapor and dust. These agents were historically sulfur and nitrogen mustard, lewisite and phosgene oxime. They can cause blisters that resemble burns or have a "pearl" pattern, blindness, respiratory failure or damage and blindness. These agents are also mutagenetic, potentially causing cancers and other cellular abnormalities years after exposure.
Blood agents inhibit cellular use of oxygen or transfer of oxygen. They are typically in a gaseous form and include hydrogen cyanide, cyanogen chloride and arsine. These agents are inhaled or absorbed through the skin. They can damage all vital organs and primarily first effect the neurological and cardiovascular systems.
Nerve agents block an enzyme call acetylcholinesterase. These agents have multiple dispersal routes that include liquid, aerosol, vapor and dust. Typically absorbed through the lungs or skin, nerve agents depending on the method of dispersal and amount can cause near immediate respiratory failure and death. Their effects are catastrophic within the body and there is very little time to administer a narrow range of medications to counteract these agents. They include tabun, sarin, soman, cyclosarin and VX.
Finally, riot control agents are utilized to incapacitate a person with irritation to the eyes, mouth, nose, throat, lungs and skin. They typically come in liquid or aerosol form and include tear gas and pepper spray. You might be thinking "those are everywhere". The Chemical Weapons Convention permits these to be used for domestic law enforcement purposes but not as weapons of war.
What About White Phosphorus?
In March 2022, reports from Ukraine cited that Russia had deployed white phosphorus "bombs". These reports remain unconfirmed by independent sources. White phosphorus is not considered a chemical weapon and it is not outlawed in the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, it is considered an incendiary weapon and covered in the Convention of Certain Conventional Weapons.
The use of white phosphorus is specifically sanctioned if it is used to illuminate or smoke an area for cover. However, the use of white phosphorus against soldiers and civilians to expressly cause them harm is outlawed. The investigation into whether or not white phosphorus was used and why is ongoing.
Analysis and Skepticism
A video was released on Telegram of the 3 victims of the unknown chemical substance. Some analysts believe that the evidence of chemical weapons use is not supported by the video. The specific details that were released on Monday do not directly point to the use of any particular, known chemical weapon. Respiratory failure and vestibulo-atatic syndrome" are not observed in the known videos or images from the attack. Vestibulo-atatic syndrome is not an earmark outcome of chemical weapons specifically, and it typically diagnosed over time as a progressive, but non-fatal, disease.
While some claim Russia has been signaling the use of chemical weapons, others believe that the likelihood of using these weapons in this engagement is low. Chemical weapons in the current status of this engagement seem unlikely and old no tactical advantage for territorial overtaking. Some chemical weapons, such as sarin, are particularly useful for removing current occupants from areas and, because they disperse quickly, allowing ensuing forces to occupy those areas quickly and without decontamination. Other chemical agents such as vesicants or more persistent nerve agents such as VX would require extensive and costly decontamination before Russian troops could occupy the key areas they are fighting to take.
The situation in Ukraine is tedious and tragic, be on the lookout for more updates.