Biden vows Russia will 'pay a severe price' if it uses chemical weapons in Ukraine

·4-min read
Joe Biden
President Joe Biden.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • Biden said Russia "would pay a severe price if it used chemical weapons" in Ukraine.

  • Russia's foreign ministry says the US and Ukraine are the real culprits preparing for such an attack.

  • Moscow's claims fit a pattern of the Kremlin's justification for chemical attacks.

President Joe Biden on Friday vowed that Russia would "pay a severe price" if it used chemical weapons in its war against Ukraine, a warning that came as other Western leaders expressed fear that such an attack could soon happen.

"I'm not going to speak about the intelligence, but Russia would pay a severe price if it used chemical weapons," Biden said in response to a reporter's question after remarks at the White House.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and top White House officials have called out Russia for seeking to concoct a narrative that the US and Ukraine are scheming to use chemical weapons. Western officials pointed out that Russia previously provided cover for or defended its chemical attacks with similar rationales.

"They start saying that there are chemical weapons that have been stored by their opponents or by the Americans," Johnson told Sky News on Thursday. "And so when they themselves deploy chemical weapons, as I fear they may, they have as a sort of a maskirovka, a fake story ready to go."

The Kremlin has denied any suggestion that it's preparing a chemical-weapons attack. The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry continued Friday to accused Ukraine and the US of gearing up for such an attack.

"Radical Ukrainian groups under the control of the representatives of American special services have prepared several potential scenarios of the use of toxic chemicals in order to carry out various types of provocations," the ministry said in a statement.

Russia was supposed to have destroyed its chemical-weapons stockpile. During the Cold War, the US and Russia amassed the world's largest stockpiles of some of the most brutal weapons. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the two former adversaries worked together to eliminate their arsenals.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons certified in 2017 that Russia had destroyed its declared stockpile that once reached a staggering 40,000 metric tons of chemical agents like mustard gas, VX, and sarin. The latter two nerve agents disrupt the human body's nervous system, which can lead to permanent damage or death. The US and experts believe that Russia still maintains a small secretive stockpile.

"The United States assesses that Russia maintains an offensive BW (bioweapons) program and is in violation of its obligations under Articles I and II of the BWC (Biological Weapons Convention)," the State Department wrote in its 2021 edition of its annual report on arms control and compliance. The US has said that Russia's failure to comply with the convention that it signed in 1975 "has been of concern for many years."

The 2018 poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in London offered evidence that Russia maintained a chemical-weapons program. The United Kingdom said it assessed the Kremlin ordered the attack and used Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent, as the poison of choice.

Daryl G. Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said Russia's continuing program made it "possible" for the Kremlin to stage an attack just as the West feared it might. He said the war in Ukraine was already brutal but the deployment of chemical weapons would make for a ghastly scene.

"These are weapons of potentially mass and clearly indiscriminate destruction," Kimball said in an interview. "Any death is horrendous, but nerve agents, choking agents, blistering agents — they produce acute suffering in the victim. A bullet can kill very quickly, but chemical weapons produce partially difficult deaths and injuries."

Biden's warning came as he announced that the West would expand its crippling sanctions on the Russian economy by banding together to deprive Moscow of its favored trade status, a way nations ensure smooth trade relationships with minimal or no barriers like tariffs or import controls. The president also said the US was banning the exportation of luxury goods to Russia and the importation of key Russian goods like seafood, diamonds, and vodka.

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