Investigations into whether Russia used chemical weapons in Ukraine put renewed focus on how the White House has gone on its toes around setting “red lines” if Moscow further violates international standards in its attack on Ukrainians.
President Biden, along with high-ranking officials in the administration, has for weeks repeated warnings that Russian President Vladimir Putin is capable of carrying out a chemical weapons attack in Ukraine.
Experts comparing the situation to Putin’s devastation in Syria, which resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths, say the Russian president may feel brave enough to use such tactics in Ukraine if he believes severe punishments would not follow again.
Ukrainian troops in Mariupol said on Monday that they were suffering from respiratory failure after Russian drones passed over their heads and appeared to drop some kind of harmful fumes, increasing the specter of a possible chemical weapons attack.
But U.S. officials said Tuesday they had no investigators on the scene and therefore were unable to confirm reports of potential chemical weapons used in the southern coastal city, which has been the site of intense attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians in recent years. weeks. .
“We are not in a position to confirm anything. I do not think the Ukrainians are either,” Foreign Minister Antony Blinken told reporters on Tuesday.
But he added that the United States had shared “credible” information with Ukraine and other allies that Russia could mix anti-insurgency drugs, such as tear gas, with chemical agents and use it as part of its siege of Mariupol.
“This is a real concern – it is a concern we had before the aggression started. I pointed out the possibility that such weapons would be used, and that is something we are very, very focused on,” Blinken said. .
Biden and his senior officials have warned that Putin carrying out such an attack would trigger a “serious price”, but have specifically avoided drawing any red lines, a phrase that could trigger memories of criticism of former President Obama that he failed to enforce military punishment that he had threatened with the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2012.
“We do not like red lines around here, so I do not want to use that phrasing,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who served in the Obama administration, on March 14.
The longest Biden would come to this view was at a NATO press conference last month, when he promised the United States and the military alliance would respond – but offered no details on how – if Putin uses chemical weapons, adding: “The nature of the reaction will depend on the nature of the use. “
The Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons said in a statement on Tuesday that it was concerned about the “unconfirmed reports on chemical weapons” and that it was closely monitoring the situation in Ukraine and was ready to help with an investigation.
Mark Cancian, a senior adviser to the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that despite the administration’s reluctance to use the term “red line”, the use of chemical weapons would mark a “dramatic escalation” and violation of a ” long-standing international red line for the use of force and weapons. “
This is on top of other atrocities that the United States and its allies say Putin and Russian forces are responsible for committing, including war crimes involving targeted civilian killings, torture, kidnappings and rape.
But Cancian said response options are limited given the wide range of sanctions already rolled out over the past six weeks.
“The problem is that there really isn’t much more they can do,” he said. “They’ve sanctioned pretty much everyone. Besides actually using troops on the ground somehow, there’s just not much more they can do. So that would put the United States in a very tough situation.”
“It is up to the Ukrainians to respond in a way that we can help,” William Taylor, former ambassador to Ukraine and vice president of Russia and the Europe Program at the US Institute of Peace, told The Hill.
“We should give all the intelligence we have about the military unit – there is one [Russian] chemical weapons unit apparently in Mariupol getting ready – if it has not already used these weapons and it should be targeted. “
A core group of national security officials focusing on Ukraine in the White House, allegedly called the Tiger Team, has prioritized outlining possible responses from the United States and its allies if Russian chemical weapons attacks were to be confirmed.
Biden reportedly brought these scenarios up on his trip to Brussels last month in his meeting with European leaders and allies with NATO.
This is on top of the fact that the administration supplies to Ukraine protective equipment against chemical weapons. And the World Health Organization said it provided guidelines to 1,500 health workers in Ukraine in the event of a chemical attack.
Taylor said the administration is correct in remaining ambiguous as to what it sees as a red line, allowing more flexibility in possible responses and avoiding the escalation between nuclear-armed forces.
Still, Matthew Kroenig, director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative, said Putin is likely to feel brave about trying chemical weapons as an important weapon of war given his experience in Syria, which enables President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to carry out chemical weapons attack. there.
“I’m afraid that one of the lessons from Syria that Putin and Assad took away is that the use of chemical weapons works,” he said.
“Putin is likely to make a calculation that despite Biden’s warnings that he can do this, it will help him win the war, and the West will not intervene in a significant way.”
Obama refrained from launching military action in Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack on opposition from international allies and Congress.
And while the former Trump administration carried out at least two military attacks on Syria, Assad and Putin have largely escaped responsibility for at least a handful of brutal attacks that killed thousands of people, with horrific images of people dying in the streets skimming about the mouth. and dead children stacked on top of each other.
“The horror of chemical weapons was very clear in Syria … that witness makes it very clear what is going on now, in Mariupol,” Taylor said. “We know what terrible effects there are, and it raises awareness, increases indignation, increases the approbrium into which Russia has fallen.”
But Taylor said the Biden administration has likely estimated that a U.S. military attack would increase the risk too much of a major confrontation with Russia.
Kroenig, who also served in the Pentagon under Republican and Democratic administrations, agreed that the current White House has been “pretty clear that the United States is not interfering militarily,” but that his assessment is a limited military attack on the sources of a chemical weapon attacks could be carried out without risking a major escalation.
“I do not think Putin wants a major war with the United States,” he said, warning against allowing impunity to continue using chemical weapons.
“Ideally, we want the lesson to be that this did not work, this did not help Putin, and basically it is not a good idea to use these weapons in the future. You will fail, you will be punished for it, that is not the key to success, ”he said.