Why deterring Russian use of chemical weapons is a challenge

April 18, 2022
Hanna Notte

The following is an excerpt from The Washington Post.

Concerns that Russia might use chemical weapons in Ukraine gained renewed urgency last week, after unverified reports that Moscow dispersed an unknown chemical agent in the besieged city of Mariupol. The destruction of Moscow’s declared chemical arsenal under the supervision of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was officially concluded in 2017, but U.S. officials have long suspected Russia of retaining some chemical weapons capabilities. One fear is that, with things going poorly on some fronts in Ukraine, it will use such weapons to turn the tide.

It is U.S. and NATO policy to deter a chemical attack by threatening punishment, military or economic. And for deterrence to work, Moscow must believe Washington will act decisively. But the circumstances in Ukraine raise challenges for deterrence because the United States is already approaching the ceiling of measures it can take against Russia short of a direct attack (which President Biden has ruled out). It has imposed crushing sanctions and last week increased the scope of weapons being shipped to Ukraine. It is unclear whether the threats that remain to be made are significant enough to cause Russia to rethink its tactics, should it judge the use of chemical weapons militarily expedient. And the same issues cloud the question of how the United States could punish Moscow for a chemical attack after the fact.

There are still economic measures that could be imposed, such as U.S. sanctions on additional financial firms or a European embargo of Russian oil and gas. And NATO has probably not exhausted all options for weapons support: Germany has been debating sending Leopard battle tanks, for instance. But the deterrent value of these measures is dubious. The Russian leadership has probably factored in harsher economic punishment, having long told its population that sanctions are inevitable. It also appears improbable that the prospect of additional NATO arms supplies to Kyiv — on top of the Mi-17 helicopters and howitzer cannons added last week and the Stinger and Javelin missiles sent before that — looms particularly large in Moscow’s calculations because the weapons arriving in Ukraine now are already deadly.

Continue reading at The Washington Post.

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