AS the war in Ukraine drags on, fears are growing that an increasingly frustrated Russia might deploy chemical weapons to break Ukrainian resistance.
Russian president Vladimir Putin was warned at a NATO summit yesterday that any use of chemical weapons would be met by a response “in kind” from the Western alliance.
The warning was issued by US President Joe Biden as world leaders met to discuss measures available to combat the horrific invasion.
Behind the rhetoric there are serious concerns that Putin will lash out with chemical weapons in an attempt to reignite his stalled military campaign.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had the world’s largest stockpile of the barbaric weapons, with an arsenal totalling 40,000 metric tons of chemical agents.
Today, chemical weapons are officially banned, but not all countries have completed the process of destroying their stockpiles – and some countries, including Russia, are thought to maintain secret stashes.
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Russia has already been accused of using white phosphorous during the Ukraine conflict, but this is just one weapon among a feared chemical arsenal which has put NATO on high alert.
Here we examine the toxic substances feared to be at Putin's disposal.
Carfentanil is an opioid which is both extremely toxic and easy to get hold of – raising fears it might be deployed as a chemical weapon by terrorists or rogue states.
And carfentanil has allegedly been weaponised by Russia in the past.
In 2002, a group of 50 armed separatists from the Chechnya region of Russia stormed a theatre in Moscow, taking 850 hostages.
During the rescue, Russian special forces soldiers flooded the theatre with a chemical agent – thought to be a mix of carfentanil and another substance – to subdue the terrorists.
However, the gas was so strong that all the insurgents – who were armed with explosives – as well as 130 hostages, were killed.
Carfenatnil is 10,000 times more powerful than morphine and is deployed as a mist of fine droplets.
Inhaling the chemical can lead to suffocation and respiratory failure.
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TCDD is a chemical dioxin found among the ingredients of Agent Orange – a forest-killing chemical used by America in the Vietnam War.
More recently, TCDD was used as a chemical weapon against Ukraine’s former president, Viktok Yushchenko.
Yuschenko was poisoned with TCDD in 2004, when he was running to become the third president of the embattled country.
The botched assassination disfigured his face and left him seriously ill, but he survived the attempt and went on to win the election.
There remains no definitive answer over who was behind the poisoning, but many pointed to Ukrainian officials with links to Russia.
Talk of chemical weapons in Ukraine raises awful echoes of their use in the Syrian civil war, fought between Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s loyalists and a US-backed coalition of opposition forces.
In 2012, a year after the conflict started, President Barack Obama famously warned Assad that he would be crossing a “red line” if he ever used chemical weapons.
But Assad, one of Putin’s closest allies, brazenly crossed that line, deploying an arsenal of chemical weapons against his own population.
Sarin is among those chemical agents deployed in Syria.
Officially a weapon of mass destruction, sarin is a nerve agent which causes victims to foam at their mouths and noses.
Even small doses can cause suffocation within ten minutes of exposure.
The most high profile use of the chemical agent came in August 2013 in Ghouta, an area outside the Syrian capital of Damascus.
Backed by Russia, the Syrian government launched two rockets loaded with sarin into rebel-held parts of Ghouta, killing up to 1,700 people in the deadliest chemical weapon attack since the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988.
Sarin was developed by both NATO and Russia as a weapon in the 1950s, but its production and stockpiling was banned by the 1993 United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention.
While mustard gas, also known as sulphur mustard, is most commonly associated with the First World War, the chemical weapon is still illegally stockpiled today.
Although it is often depicted and described as a gas, the chemical is actually deployed in a vapour of fine droplets which attack the skin, causing severe burns.
Mustard gas was also allegedly deployed during the Syrian civil war, with Syrian state media claiming that ISIS used it in a battle against the Syrian army in the city of Deir ez-Zor.
But the banned weapon was also found to be stockpiled by the Syrian army.
After the famous crossing of Obama’s chemical weapons “red line” in Syria, the US sought a diplomatic settlement with Assad.
Russia agreed to negotiate with Assad, who was close to the Kremlin, to destroy Syria’s illegal stockpile of chemical weapons.
During the decommissioning process, US officials found about 1,300 tons of mustard gas – proving that the century-old weapon was still in circulation despite UN bans.
Venomous Agent X
Short for Venomous Agent X, VX is another nerve agent uncovered during the destruction of the chemical weapons stockpile in Syria.
Nerve agents are the most toxic and fast-acting of all chemical weapons. They work by interfering with the signals we send to our internal organs, causing death by heart attack or suffocation within minutes of exposure.
VX is thought of as the most potent and persistent of all nerve agents, and less than 0.5mg of VX is enough to kill an adult.
Russia officially dismantled its stockpile of VX missiles in 2017, but in the years since Russia has been accused of failing to fully comply with chemical weapons controls.
Russia has already been accused of using white phosphorous bombs on Ukraine.
Footage shows what is alleged to be white phosphorous burning fiercely on the ground in the eastern city of Kramatorsk.
White phosphorous causes injuries and death by burning deep into tissue, through being inhaled as a smoke or by being ingested.
Phosphorous munitions are not banned outright, and the chemical is commonly used in smoke grenades and tracer rounds.
The Chemical Weapons Convention
The Chemical Weapons Convention is an international agreement which prohibits the use of chemical weapons and commits countries to destroying their stockpiles.
Russia, then known as the Soviet Union, signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993.
In 1997 Russia declared a stockpile of 40,000 tons of chemical weapons.
The last of these declared weapons were destroyed in 2017, five years behind schedule.
It is estimated that 98 per cent of the world’s chemical weapon stockpiles have been verifiably destroyed, in accordance with the Convention.
However, Russia’s compliance with the Convention has been questioned by experts.
In theory, Western governments would know if Russia was producing chemical weapons on a large scale.
However, it remains possible that Russia has a limited stockpile which could be used in small-scale operations.
Russian chemical weapons made headlines in the UK in 2018, when Russian spies poisoned former KGB agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.
The double agent was poisoned with novichok, a military-grade nerve agent, along with his daughter, Yulia. Both were hospitalised but survived.
Russia denied responsibility for the attack but the British government laid the blame squarely with Putin’s regime.
The same nerve agent – supposedly the deadliest ever made – was used to poison Russian opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny two years later.
The Salisbury assassination attempt was predated by another Russian attack on British soil.
In 2006, British spy Alexander Litvinenko, a defector from Russia, suddenly fell ill.
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