Has the next escalation level in the Ukraine war been reached?

It remains unclear whether Russia has now also used poison gas in the almost completely destroyed port city of Mariupol. The news was spread by the ultra-nationalist Ukrainian Azov regiment, which is fighting in Mariupol, among other places.

So far, however, there have been no confirmations. Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine Hanna Maliar said the warfare agent could have been phosphorus ammunition. The matter will be investigated.
The Russian side denied. The separatist militias in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk, which are also in Mariupol, denied the operation, according to one of their commanders, as reported by the Russian agency Interfax. Great Britain and the USA, however, were concerned and announced their own investigations.

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If the use of chemical weapons is confirmed, the West will react, said the Minister responsible for the armed forces in London, James Heappey: “All options are on the table”.

Poison gas has been used as a weapon in the Syrian war since 2012

Poison gas has been used as a weapon since 2012 in the Syrian war, in which Moscow supports the Assad regime. But Damascus gave the order. However, the Putin government covered up the illegal use and, together with China, prevented sanctions against Assad, even though an international commission had provided evidence that the regime was using the banned chemical weapons against its own population.
Frank Sauer, a political scientist and military expert who teaches at the Bundeswehr University in Munich, has been anticipating that Russia could use chemical weapons for weeks: “Of course, Russia has chemical weapons and has already used them,” he says the daily mirror. “The Skripal and Navalny cases teach us that.”

Sergei Skripal, a former Russian officer, and his daughter Yulia narrowly escaped death in March 2018 after being attacked with the neurotoxin Novichok.

The Putin critic Alexej Navalny was treated for the same poison in the Berlin Charité in 2020. However, Sauer is not certain whether chemical weapons were used in Mariupol on Monday.

“The symptoms are at least atypical.” For the test, residues and a forensic examination are needed. That is currently hardly possible in Mariupol.

More on the Ukraine war at Tagesspiegel Plus:

The Azov regiment reported on Monday evening that an unmanned aerial vehicle, probably a drone, had thrown a “poisonous substance” at Ukrainian soldiers and civilians that caused respiratory and neurological problems, “but without catastrophic consequences”.
The use of chemical weapons is a step in the escalation that would fit into the picture of war in the coming weeks, says Sauer. “The struggle for Donbass will be a ‘war of attrition’ and I fear that the civilian population will also continue to be terrorized.

“Unfortunately, chemical weapons fit into Putin’s calculations”

Unfortunately, chemical weapons fit into Putin’s calculations. Of course, afterwards it would be pretended that it wasn’t Russia itself, but separatist ethnic groups, standard sentences and smoke screens that we’ve been hearing from the Kremlin for years.”
He is unable to judge whether the so-called “red line” has been crossed with the use of chemical weapons. “NATO is very stable in its stance of only defending its own alliance members.

But individual countries might want to take action.” Countries like India and China could also change attitudes towards Russia’s war of aggression through the use of chemical weapons.

Hanna Notte, Russia expert and researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, can certainly imagine the use of chemical weapons in the coming weeks.
“Although Russia declared before the OPCW, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, in 2017 that it had destroyed all of its chemical weapons, there are reasonable doubts about this. The dossier on this is closed and it is difficult to open it again.

But we assume that there are Novichok stocks.” Whether chemical weapons will be used depends on whether Russia sees a military purpose in them in the coming weeks.

“These are the appropriate weapons for a war of attrition and for wanting to spread fear and terror.”

Notte considers the inhibition threshold for such an assignment to be low. “The consequences that would result for Russia would be manageable. NATO put Ukraine in a position to protect itself by supplying protective equipment, nothing more.”

All steps would be calculated with caution to avoid nuclear escalation. “Even the poison gas attacks in Syria have so far hardly been punished because real sanctions have always been blocked by Russia, which is a kind of precedent.

And everything that OPCW inspectors would do during a mission in Donbas would be discredited by Russia.” Western politics have not really changed as a result of the events in Syria.

The propaganda machine in Russia is well oiled, says Notte. “On state television, everything would continue to be blamed on the Ukrainian side, and that has hitherto found fertile ground.”

She is sure: “Russia would find a twist and still look goodboth nationally and among the countries that are at least neutral towards Russia.”
Russia may be surprised at how united NATO has behaved and also at the strong economic sanctions. “But Russia knows about military risk aversion. And that is a big trump card.”

The international law expert Barry de Vries, research associate at the University of Gießen and associated scientist at the Hessian Foundation for Peace and Conflict Research, refers, like Sauer, to the difficulties involved in detecting an attack with chemical weapons.

If, however, it is white phosphorus in Mariupol, as indicated by the Kiev government, the situation would be different: “This substance is generally not classified as a chemical weapon,” says de Vries, who is a specialist in arms control law, to the Tagesspiegel.

So far there is no evidence that the weapons were used

Both Ukraine and Russia are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans not only the use of chemical weapons but also their development, manufacture and stockpiling.

But: “Russian forces have so far demonstrated a worrying disregard for international humanitarian law and appear to target civilians and civilian objects in order to incite terror; So chemical weapons could definitely be used to terrify the Ukrainian population.” But so far there is no evidence of that.

In any case, a massive response against Russia does not require the use of chemical weapons as a justification: “Third countries are already allowed to assist Ukraine in self-defense.”

So far, however, a political decision has been made against it and it seems doubtful that this will change: “The most likely answer will be the continuation and perhaps the expansion of the provision of military material to Ukraine and the tightening of sanctions against Russia.”

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