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Could Putin Use Chemical or Biological Weapons in Ukraine?

AU’s Stefano Costanzi answers our questions about these weapons of mass destruction

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Hazard symbols on a map of the world

On Wednesday, March 9, the Russian Defense Ministry accused the United States and Ukraine of conducting chemical and biological weapons activities in Ukraine. US Press Secretary Jen Psaki called these claims “preposterous.”

Administration officials told NBC News that the US is worried that the Russians are making the claim “to justify a false-flag operation or them using chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine themselves.” It’s a concept that has horrified the world.

We turned to AU’s Professor of Chemistry Stefano Costanzi to ask him to break down the complex issues around chemical and biological weapons, how the world is fighting their production and use, and what this all means for the terrible situation in Ukraine. With a PhD in Chemistry and a MA of International Service degree, Costanzi works at the intersection of science and policy as an expert in both the chemistry of chemical/biological weapons and in their international and policy implications. 

Q. Western officials have shared concerns about the possibility of Russia using non-conventional weapons in Ukraine or elsewhere. What exactly are these “non-conventional” (chemical and biological) weapons?  

Chemical and biological weapons are often confused with one another. However, they are two distinct things. Chemical weapons are toxic chemicals that are deliberately used as weapons to bring about death or harm. Conversely, biological weapons are viruses or living organisms, such as bacteria, that are deliberately used as weapons to bring about death or harm.  

There is an overlap between these two categories of weapons, though: weapons based on toxins, which are toxic chemicals produced by living organisms, are considered both chemical weapons (because they are toxic chemicals) and biological weapons (because they are produced by living organisms). Examples of toxins are ricin, produced by the castor oil plant, and botulinum toxin, produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Two treaties pose a complete ban on chemical and biological weapons: the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Toxins are covered by both the CWC and the BWC.

Q. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, chemical weapons have been used in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention in attacks against innocent citizens and political dissidents. Can you share some examples?

Between 2015 and 2017, the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) investigated a number of chemical weapons incidents that occurred within the context of the Syrian civil war. (The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention.) Several of these incidents were attributed to Syria, while others were attributed to the Islamic State. The JIM ceased to exist at the end of 2017, when Syria’s ally Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to renew its mandate. A new investigative mechanism established within the OPCW, the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), subsequently attributed additional chemical weapon incidents to Syria.  

Beyond the Syrian civil war, chemical weapons have been used on very small scales for targeted assassinations and attempted assassinations. These include the murdering with the nerve agent VX of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un, in February 2017 at the Kuala Lumpur airport, as well as two notable assassination attempts conducted with Novichoks, nerve agents developed in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  

In particular, in March 2018, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who defected to the UK, and his daughter Yulia, were poisoned with a Novichok agent in Salisbury, England. Following investigations, prosecutors from the British Counter Terrorism Division authorized charges against three members of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service. Two years later, in August 2020, Alexei Navalny, a Russian anti-Kremlin political figure, was poisoned with a different Novichok agent in Russia. Independent UN special rapporteurs concluded that Russia is responsible for the assassination attempt and called for an international investigation into the incident.

Q. On March 9, the US State Department issued a press release, stating, “It is Russia that has active chemical and biological weapons programs and is in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention.” Can you explain the terms of these conventions — and how Russia is accused of violating them?  

These conventions pose a complete ban on chemical and biological weapons. The ban in not just limited to the use of the weapons. It extends to their development, acquisition, stockpiling, and transfer. Russia, who had previously accused the United States of running a secret biological weapons laboratory in the country of Georgia, very recently accused the United States of financing biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine and requested a UN Security Council meeting to discuss such claims.  

US officials rejected the allegations as a disinformation operation and, in turn, accused Russia of being in violation of the conventions, specifically with respect to the Novichok incidents and its support of Syria. In two March 9 tweets, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki wrote, “It’s Russia that has a long and well-documented track record of using chemical weapons, including in attempted assassinations and poisoning of Putin’s political enemies like Alexey Navalny,” and “It’s Russia that continues to support the Assad regime in Syria, which has repeatedly used chemical weapons. It’s Russia that has long maintained a biological weapons program in violation of international law.”  

US officials have also warned that Russia has a track record of accusing others of actions that Russia is planning on perpetrating, raising the concern that chemical or biological weapons attacks could possibly be forthcoming.

Q. Is there anything that can be done to stop a country like Russia from using chemical weapons during wartime?  

The CWC is a very powerful treaty, much more powerful than previous treaties that only banned the use of chemical weapons, but not their development or stockpiling. Importantly, the CWC has also a verification regime meant to monitor the destruction of existing stockpiles and prevent the development of new ones. Also, the CWC enjoys an almost universal embracement, counting 193 state parties. Chemical weapons stockpiles have been largely eliminated. Russia completed the elimination of its chemical stockpiles, which were once the largest in the world, in 2017. The United States is in the process of completing the elimination of its stockpiles. The US process, which is expected to be completed in 2023, is taking longer than initially expected because the weapons are being destroyed in a very safe and environmentally sound manner.  

However, the threat of chemical weapons has not vanished. North Korea, which is not a member of the Convention, is known to have a large stockpile of chemical weapons. Moreover, as the chemical weapons incidents that occurred in the last few years demonstrate, the chemical weapons landscape has involved into one of small-scale attacks and targeted assassinations.  

Additionally, there is always the risk that chemicals that are readily available for legitimate civilian applications could be used as chemical weapons. Indeed, this has been the case in the Syrian Civil War, where chlorine was used for many of the attacks. The international community should work to ensure that chemical weapons incidents are attributed to their perpetrators and that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions. This is key to prevent actors from wanting to use chemical weapons.

Q. Much of your work focused on the intersection of science and policy, analyzing chemical weapons nonproliferation efforts, identifying weaknesses, and finding solutions. Looking forward, what are some possible solutions for controlling the stockpiling and use of chemical weapons?  

To support the fight against the proliferation of chemical weapons, it is fundamental to have the right instruments to monitor the development of chemicals of concern and their transfer across borders.  

In this respect, my work has focused on two areas. The first line of work involves identifying existing gaps in the lists of chemicals of security concern that support nonproliferation mechanisms and proposing solutions to close them. Together with my colleague Gregory Koblentz of George Mason University, we have particularly concentrated on Novichok agents. The existence of gaps in their coverage has become particularly evident in light of the Navalny incident, given that the specific Novichok agent involved in the incident is not included in the lists of chemicals that support the Chemical Weapons Convention verification regime. In our latest article in this line of work, published in the journal Nonproliferation Review, we provide recommendations to strengthen the coverage of this class of nerve agents, as well as chemicals that could be used to make them. We propose a comprehensive approach based on the listing of families of chemicals rather than individual chemicals.  

My second line of work, involving a collaboration with Richard Cupitt’s team at the think tank Stimson Center, as well as Gregory Koblentz and supported by Global Affairs Canada, involves the development of a cheminformatics database intended to assist frontline officers and chemical manufacturers and shippers in assessing whether a given chemical is subject to controls for chemical security purposes. Making such an assessment is particularly challenging, especially for non-chemists. Gauging whether a given chemical is part of a controlled family of chemicals is difficult, virtually impossible for someone who does not have significant training in chemistry. Moreover, the task is further complicated by existence of numerous synonyms for the same chemical names and numerous variants for the same chemical. By automating the process, our database makes the task easily attainable by anyone with minimal training. In our latest article in this line of work, published in the journal Pure and Applied Chemistry, we describe the development of a working prototype of the database. We are planning to begin field-testing the prototype with select jurisdictions in the near future. 

Beyond my work, there are several other ways in which the restraint against the use of chemical weapons can be bolstered. One of them is the development of forensic chemistry methods intended to strengthen the ability to conclusively assess whether chemical weapons were used in a given incident and contribute to attribution efforts. As mentioned, showing a great resolve to hold all perpetrators accountable is key to dissuade actors from using chemical weapons, and anything that can support these efforts goes a long way towards reducing the chemical weapons threat.