Along with concerns over the possible deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, the Biden administration is now warning that the Russian military may launch a chemical weapons attack in Ukraine. Russia has used chemical weapons during past conflicts, notably in Chechnya and Syria, in violation of international law. Russian officials denied Biden’s accusation during a U.N. Security Council meeting Tuesday.
Matthew Bunn is James R. Schlesinger Professor of the Practice of Energy, National Security, and Foreign Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and co-principal investigator of the Belfer Center’s Project on Managing the Atom. Bunn spoke with the Gazette about Russia’s potential use of chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine and how the Biden administration and the West may respond. Interview has been edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: Biden officials have warned that Russia may deploy chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine. Why, and what kinds of things might they do?
BUNN: From a purely military perspective, there are no military targets that nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons could destroy that Russia can’t destroy with its airpower and rockets. The main purpose of using them would probably be to try to shock the Ukrainians into surrender.
Unfortunately, a lot of Russia’s capabilities are secret. Under the Biological Weapons Convention, they’re not supposed to have any biological weapons, but they are thought to be violating that convention and still maintaining some offensive biological weapons capability. Similarly, under the Chemical Weapons Convention, they’re not supposed to have any chemical weapons anymore, but are believed to have significant stocks. They have used small amounts of chemical weapons in assassinations or assassination attempts against dissidents, both in Russia, against Alexey Navalny, and in the U.K., against Sergei and Yulia Skripal. With chemical weapons, they could kill a lot of Ukrainian military people and they could attack civilians, as they have been doing with their conventional weapons. They have a lot of escalation opportunities just with their conventional weapons, as we’ve been seeing in recent days, as they shift to shelling and bombing cities more or less indiscriminately, and also directly targeting civilians.