The United States and its allies have intelligence that Russia may be preparing to use chemical weapons against Ukraine, U.S. and European officials said Friday, as Moscow sought to invigorate its faltering military offensive through increasingly brutal assaults across multiple Ukrainian cities.
Security officials and diplomats said the intelligence, which they declined to detail, pointed to possible preparations by Russia for deploying chemical munitions, and warned the Kremlin may seek to carry out a “false-flag” attack that attempts to pin the blame on Ukrainians, or perhaps Western governments. The officials, like others quoted in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter.
The accusations surfaced as Russia repeated claims that the United States and Ukraine were operating secret biological weapons labs in Eastern Europe — an allegation that the Biden administration dismissed as “total nonsense” and “outright lies.”
Any use of poison gases in Ukraine would violate a decades-old international treaty banning such weapons, and represent a dangerous turn in Russia’s two-week-old military offensive against its neighbor. Russia, which possessed vast stocks of chemical and biological weapons during the Cold War, has used outlawed nerve agents in at least two assassination attempts against political foes of President Vladimir Putin in the past three years, including at least once outside its borders, Western intelligence agencies concluded.
Because the U.S. and European officials declined to describe the nature of the intelligence pointing to a possible Russian chemical attack in Ukraine, it was impossible to determine how significant it might be. U.S. officials have been warning publicly for days that Russia might carry out a false flag operation, after the Kremlin alleged the United States had supported a bioweapons program in Ukraine.
“It’s more than an urgent concern,” one European official said of the prospects for a Russian chemical attack. “Clearly there’s been an increase in the threat.”
A senior NATO official added that Russia “is preparing the ground for a chemical or bioweapons attack.”
When Russian President Vladimir Putin first launched airstrikes inside Syria in fall 2015, the Syrian conflict was in its fifth year. Armed rebels, who opposed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on civilians, were gaining ground; ISIS was on the rise; and Assad had acknowledged his army was on the retreat.
Russia had said its military was targeting ISIS and other terrorist groups. But in the days, months and years to come, Russian airpower reportedly exacted a stark toll on Syrian civilians. Putin’s military intervention — including aiding his ally Assad in besieging opposition-held areas of Aleppo and bombing hospitals, ultimately helped Assad regain territory and stay in power.
Now civilians in Ukraine are coming under Russian bombardment, with hospitals reportedly in the line of fire, according to Ukrainian officials. The New York Times has described “indiscriminate slaughter by an invading Russian army that has increasingly targeted heavily populated civilian areas.”
“You look at the bombing of Kyiv today, or Kharkiv, and it echoes the destruction of Aleppo that was carried out by Russian forces under the direction of Vladimir Putin,” The New Yorker staff writer Susan Glasser told FRONTLINE in an interview with producer Mike Wiser for the upcoming documentary Putin’s Road to War.