Opinion | What Do We Do if Putin Uses Chemical Weapons?

There are reports that Russia may be planning to use, or, according to unverified reports from local officials in Mariupol, may have already used, chemical weapons as part of its offensive in eastern Ukraine. The Biden administration has already established a Tiger Team of national security officials to consider options should this happen; now is the time for these discussions to become more public.

We’ve traveled this road before, wrong. In August 2012, Barack Obama publicly warned the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria against using chemical weapons. “A red line for us is that we start to see a lot of chemical weapons moving around or being used,” he said. “That would change my calculation.”

it did not. The following year, reports emerged that al-Assad had begun using chemical weapons, culminating in a sarin gas attack on a Damascus suburb. Obama wavered, fearing a broader war. The British parliament voted against taking military action in Syria. Republicans in Congress changed overnight from aggressive interventionists to skeptical isolationists. Vladimir Putin chimed in with a face-saving offer for al-Assad to voluntarily divest himself of his chemical arsenal.

The Obama administration boasted that it had achieved the best possible outcome. But it later came to light that al-Assad had not given up his entire arsenal and continued to use chlorine gas against his opponents without consequence. Putin cemented his alliance with al-Assad, which ultimately led to the introduction of Russian forces into Syria in 2015.

And it served as the basis for Russia’s seizure of Crimea a few months later. Obama’s dithering on Syria “was decisive,” former President François Hollande of France recently told my colleague Roger Cohen. “Decisive for American credibility, and that had consequences. After that, I think, Putin considered Obama weak.”

This is not a scenario that the Biden team can afford to repeat. What should the administration do?

Only make promises that you intend to keep. The use of chemical weapons by Syria was a military, humanitarian and international norms crisis. Obama’s red line turned it into a crisis of American credibility, a crisis whose consequences were far more far-reaching than anything that happened in Syria.

The US response should be asymmetric. President Biden issued a veiled threat to Putin when they met last June in Geneva, mentioning the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline: “I looked at it. I said, ‘Well, how would you feel if ransomware took over your oilfield pipelines?’” That was fair warning.

Exert maximum diplomatic pressure on Germany and other European states to end oil and gas imports from Russia. By one estimate, those sales provide the Kremlin with a billion dollars a day. Berlin remains the weakest link in the effort to create an effective sanctions regime against Russia. This now cowardly position will become morally untenable for Germany if Russia starts gassing the Ukrainians. It should lead to the immediate removal of all Russian financial institutions from the SWIFT transaction system to make payments for oil and gas nearly impossible.

Tear apart Russia’s supply chains. This is the brainchild of Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo, who has been looking for ways to disrupt the Kremlin’s military supply chains. He should go beyond this to all sectors of the Russian economy, automatically prohibiting any company that does business in Russia from also doing business in the United States and hopefully Europe.

Arm Ukraine with offensive weapons. “If it turns out that Putin used chemical weapons, one of his favorite modus operandi, from poisoning political opponents to supporting their use on the Syrian battlefield, the West must respond aggressively,” former NATO commander Mr. Admiral James Stavridis. . “Assuming these weapons are delivered by air, it ups the ante by giving the Ukrainians even more tools to run an effective no-fly zone, including MIG-29 fighters and possibly other anti-aircraft-capable platforms and drones.”

Target Belarus. The Biden administration is wary of a direct confrontation with Russia. It should be much less restrained in going after the Kremlin’s puppet regime. Turning off the lights in Minsk for a day would be a useful shot as dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko considers joining the Kremlin’s military effort.

Expect the worst. “He has no qualms against really horrible activity,” another former top US military commander told me about Aleksandr Dvornikov, Russia’s new theater commander. “That is what he did in Aleppo.” One of the hallmarks of al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons is that he began using them quietly, but became bolder over time. The effect, the former officer warned, could be a “cumulative Srebrenica,” referring to the 1995 Serb massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Bosnia.

Plan for a long war. Make sure we can supply Ukraine with the weapons it needs for at least a year. Begin training Ukrainian forces in advanced Western combat systems. Prepare to isolate Russia from the global economy for a decade.

We may not be able to stop Putin from using chemical weapons, but we can still prevent the fatal mistake we made a decade ago with al-Assad.

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