The word used by several U.S. officials who have been involved in contingency planning for such an attack for at least a month is “proportional,” meaning that America and its allies intend to respond in a manner appropriate to the potential war crime. .
Instead, some suggested that America and its allies could impose further sanctions on Moscow or further strengthen Ukraine’s defense with advanced weapons. Biden aides have also speculated that the use of chemical weapons may be the last driving force for European nations to stop imports of Russian energy, which has fueled Putin’s war machine and filled his country’s coffers.
Before doing any of that, the first step is to confirm a Ukrainian military group’s accusation that Russia posted a chemical substance in Mariupol on Monday. The Azov Regiment, a front-line combat unit that has fought Russia in the Donbas since 2014 and has been linked to neo-Nazi groups and white supremacists, said Russian troops lost a chemical weapon from a drone and poisoned at least three people, even though the group said they affected soldiers do not face catastrophic health effects. If true, it would be the first known use of chemical weapons in the war since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February.
U.S. and European officials have not yet substantiated the accusation. Experts say a preliminary assessment could be made using photos or videos, if available, while U.S. or Western officials on the spot collect samples for more crucial verification. Ukraine could also invite the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a global watchdog headquartered in the Netherlands, to send a rapid reaction team to the scene of the investigation.
Officials warned Tuesday that such a decision may not be imminent. It may take some time to assess whether chemical weapons were used, as it did during the conflict in Syria back in 2013.
“There is no independent verification in that area, so it will probably take a long time,” a European official told POLITICO. There is a “wealth of difficulties” in verifying the allegations, a senior U.S. defense attorney told reporters Tuesday. “It’s hard things to prove, even when you’re closer, and we are not.”
In addition, U.S. officials raised questions about the credibility of the Azov regiment, noting that the far-right could be eager to provoke a major confrontation. They also noted that Ukrainian officials, who have been quick to accuse Russia of atrocities, have not definitively declared the use of illegal weapons.
To that point, during his Monday speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not confirm that chemical weapons had been deployed, but said he took the recent threat of their use in Mariupol by Russian-backed separatists “as seriously as possible.” But Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the Interior Minister of Ukraine, tweeted a few hours in advance that “Chemical weapons are used”In Mariupol.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told CNN hours later that the United States was working with Ukraine “to try to determine what exactly happened here.” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss added on Twitter that “any use of such weapons would be a severe escalation in this conflict, and we will hold Putin and his regime accountable.”
The United States has long warned that Russia could fire chemical weapons in Ukraine, prompting Biden to tell reporters in Europe last month that his administration would act quickly if Putin’s troops went that far. “The nature of the answer will depend on the nature of the use,” he said, adding “it would trigger an answer in kind.”
It is unclear at this time what the administration considers a “proportional” response to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Mariupol. Public officials publicly condemn the use of all chemical weapons. But privately, they recognize that there is a wide range of mortality in such weapons – in other words, that there is a big difference between a container of chlorine and a sarin bomb thrown at a school. More serious consequences, they note, would be paid in response to the potential use of more dangerous weapons.
What is clear, however, is that an answer seems imminent if the international community confirmed the accusations of the Azov regiment. “Any confirmed use of banned chemical weapons will trigger serious consequences for Russia,” said Andrew Weber, a former Pentagon chief of staff for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons during the Obama years.
The current moment reflects former President Barack Obama’s “red line” in Syria, where he promised that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would trigger a US response.
One year after Obama’s infamous remark, Assad’s forces killed more than 1,400 people with saringas. In response, then-Vice President Biden promised a crowd at the U.S. Legion that “those who use chemical weapons against defenseless men, women, and children should and must be held accountable.”
Eventually, the Obama administration entered into an agreement with Russia to remove 600 tons of Syria’s chemical stocks. Biden praised that decision at the time and credited the White House for moving the world to act against a “fundamental violation of human rights.” But the merits of the deal were quickly wound up in doubt as Syrian forces monitored further chemical attacks in 2017 and 2018.
In response to these atrocities, then-President Donald Trump approved attacks on Syrian targets.
“We can not allow atrocities like that,” he said ahead of the second response.
These strikes were largely symbolic reactions. Initially, the Trump administration fired missiles at a Syrian air base from which planes had dropped the chemical weapons – but gave advance notice to Russia to keep assets away from the targets. Doing so did not ignite a major global conflict, but neither did it destroy the entire Syrian chemical weapons program.
Current officials insist the situation is dramatically different now and that Biden has not made such a red line statement either.
Beating Russia would be far more dangerous than hitting Syrian government targets. Moscow, armed with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and advanced cyber capabilities, could respond in a way that escalates the conflict outside Ukraine’s borders. As such, it is now being considered as a response to a confirmed chemical weapons attack, new sanctions, more arms shipments to Ukraine or even a cyber attack.
“We will choose the form and nature of our response based on the nature of the action Russia is taking, and we will do so in coordination with our allies. And we have communicated to the Russians… that there will be a serious price, if Russia uses chemical weapons, ”National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters in March, backing Biden’s comments.