Russia’s death strategy: What type of chemical weapons could Russia have used on Ukraine?

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Reports of the use of chemical weapons by Russian forces surfaced last night, though the alleged attack on Ukraine’s southern port city of Mariupol is yet to be confirmed. It comes following a statement from Russia to Ukraine, warning of what president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said was “a new stage of terror” against his country. Claims of the use of chemical warfare have sparked new fears amongst Western officials, but what type of weapons could Russia have used on Ukraine? This is Russia’s chemical arsenal explained.

Despite having signed up to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans countries from developing, using or stockpiling chemical weapons, Russia is still known to have used them.

While the CWC hasn’t stopped Russia’s use of chemical weapons in the past, it does prevent them from launching wide-scale attacks like the ones witnessed in Syria.

Dr Brett Edwards, an expert in the history of chemical and biological weapons, told Sky: “Because of its collaboration with the CWC, Russia is subject to on-site inspections and investigations.

“So we know they don’t have major stocks, because they’ve either been destroyed or are in the process of being destroyed.”

He added that the “smaller use” of such weapons is more likely in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but what could they use?

What type of chemical weapons does Russia own?

Chemical weapons use chemicals with toxic properties to intentionally cause death or harm.

These volatile substances are categorised by the effect they have on the human body, with everything from nerve agents to choking agents known to exist in Russia’s arsenal.

Nerve agents

  • Nerve agents are used to stop people’s nerves sending messages to their muscles and result in paralysis and loss of bodily function
  • Types include sarin, novichok, soman, and tabun

Blistering agents

  • Blistering agents come in gas, aerosol or liquid form and cause the skin to blister on contact
  • Examples include sulphur mustard, used in the First World War and nitrogen mustard

Choking agents

  • Choking agents cause respiratory failure if inhaled or ingested – chlorine is most common

Blood agents

  • These affect the body’s ability to send oxygen through the bloodstream
  • Examples include hydrogen chloride and cyanogen chloride

When has Russia used chemical weapons in the past?

Confirmed cases of Russia’s use of chemical and biological weapons include:

October 2002, during the Second Chechen War

Russian Troops used a gas containing the opioid carfentanil after Chechen rebels stormed a Moscow theatre and held people hostage.

The volatile substance killed 120 of the theatre hostages, and is thought to be 10,000 times more powerful than morphine.

Yushchenko poisoning, 2004

Just two years after Chechen poisoning, toxicologists found that Ukraine’s pro-Western president Viktor Yushchenko had been poisoned by the chemical known as TCD.

The targeted attack occurred following Mr Yuschenko’s election victory against Putin’s preferred candidate, Viktor Yanukovych.

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Syria

Russia’s use of chemical weapons in Syria is the widest-scale example, with an estimated 85 chemical weapon attacks staged during the conflict.

The substances were used to fight alongside Bashar al-Assad’s government forces in the country’s civil war.

Sky News reported that the worst attack in Syria was in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August 2013 when up to 1,700 people died as a result of the nerve agent sarin.

Targeted poisonings

Alexander Litvinenko

In November 2006, former KGB officer-turned British spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned by Russian agents in a London hotel.

The ex-spy’s tea was contaminated with a highly radioactive chemical known as polonium 210, leading to death by acute radiation poisoning just three weeks later.

Sergei Skripal

In March 2018, former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with the nerve agent novichok in Salisbury, England.

While both targets survived the attack, local residents Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley came into contact with the agent via a perfume bottle, which eventually killed Miss Sturgess.

Alexei Navalny

Most recently in August 2020, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny “fell ill” on a flight home to Moscow after being poisoned with novichok.

Five certified laboratories confirmed the chemical agent after Navalny received medical treatment in Berlin.

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