As the war in Ukraine continued through spring following the Russian invasion, for the first time since World War II the use of CBRN weapons in Europe came closer to terrifying reality. David Oliver assesses Russia’s ongoing CBRN threats to Ukraine.

Russia’s BW claim
On 8 March, commander of the Russian CBRN Defense Forces Lt Gen Igor Kirillov claimed that the US Department of Defense had been funding biological projects in Ukraine.

Kirillov pointed out that the recipient of the $32 million funding was the laboratories of the Ukrainian Defence Ministry located in Kyiv, Odessa, Lviv and Kharkiv.

Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed during a cabinet meeting that dozens of tests were conducted in Ukraine near the borders with Russia – under the sponsorship and funding of the Pentagon – to develop military biological programmes. He pointed out that the Americans and Kyiv authorities are trying to erase any track of biological weapons in Ukraine.

US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland testified before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Ukraine, admitting that Ukraine has biological research facilities. “We are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces should they approach,” she said.

On March 11, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video post on his Facebook account that “no chemical or any other weapons of mass destruction were developed on my land.”

Ammonia leak
On 21 March, an ammonia leak occurred at a chemical plant in Ukraine’s Sumy City. “The leak occurred in the morning and the radius of the affected area is about 2.5 km,” regional administration head Cmitry Zhivitsky said on his Telegram channel. According to Zhivitsky, the city of Sumy was not in danger at the time.

The plant’s disaster response brigades and employees of the State Emergency Situations Service of Ukraine were working at the emergency site. Earlier, Russian Defence Ministry had warned of the danger of provocations that Kyiv – backed by the West – would resort to using toxic chemicals against their own civilians with the aim of accusing Russia.

Biden’s warning
At the same time US President Joe Biden said that Vladimir Putin’s “back is against the wall,” warning that he may use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine. International research organisations have also cut ties with Russian research organisations. The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) said that it would not collaborate with the Russian Federation.

The Russian Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection (Rospotrebnadzor) claimed on 28 March that the US funds more than 300 biological laboratories around the world. “There are regions where there is a high concentration of US-funded civilian and military biological laboratories, and their number is increasing day by day, and currently there are more than 300 laboratories,” claimed the Head of Rospotrebnadzor, Ana Popova, at the annual Russian Congress on Infectious Diseases.

Nuclear facility damage
Ukraine informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on 28 March that a nuclear research facility in the north-eastern city of Kharkiv had suffered additional damage when it came under renewed fire a few days earlier. But according to IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, its small amount of nuclear material remained intact.

Grossi travelled to Ukraine on 29 March for talks with senior government officials on the IAEA’s planned delivery of urgent technical assistance to ensure the safety and security of the country’s nuclear facilities – and to help avert the risk of a catastrophic accident.

“The military conflict is putting Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and other facilities with radioactive material in unprecedented danger. We must take urgent action to make sure that they can continue to operate safely and securely and reduce the risk of a nuclear accident that could have a severe health and environmental impact both in Ukraine and beyond.”

Grossi later said that Ukraine had informed the IAEA that “the morale and the emotional state” of staff working at the country’s Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) was “very low” one month after Russian military forces seized the site.

Seizing and leaving Chernobyl
Russian troops seized Chernobyl at the beginning of their invasion of Ukraine, but on 31 March those troops began leaving the area after soldiers reportedly received “significant doses” of radiation from digging trenches at the highly contaminated site, according to Ukraine’s Energoatom.

It said that the Russians had dug in the forest inside the exclusion zone around the plant and they “panicked at the first sign of sickness.”

Preparing for Putin’s CBW
However, the longer Putin is determined to overrun Ukraine and depose its government, the more likely that he may resort to using chemical  or biological weapons.

The United States has already been granting Ukraine’s request for PPE against a possible chemical attack from Russia. In turn, the Kremlin continues to level baseless accusations against the US and Ukraine about developing bioweapons and planning chemical attacks against Russian forces.

Meanwhile, the US is rushing to provide Ukrainian civilians with gas masks, hazmat suits and other materials, although Kyiv could decide to send this protective equipment to its military. “The U.S. Government is providing the Government of Ukraine with life-saving equipment and supplies that could be deployed in the event of Russian use of chemical and biological weapons against Ukraine,” a spokesperson for the National Security Council confirmed.

EU protection
At the same time the European Union is stockpiling medicines and protective equipment to protect against any potential chemical, nuclear and biological incidents amid escalations in the Ukraine war. Supplies also include decontamination equipment, gloves, masks and other material for CBRN defence, officials said.

The EU initiative has been prompted by Russian troops seizure of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant early in the war.

On 3 April, the Ukraine defence ministry released images of respirator gas masks issued to Russian troops while others have been found abandoned in destroyed Russian armoured vehicles.

White phosphorus
White phosphorus (WP) munitions have already been deployed in the eastern Ukraine city of Kramatorsk.

WP ignites on contact with air and is often used to mark enemy targets and produce a smokescreen to hide troop movements. It can also be used to start fires, and can burn through bone when it comes into contact with flesh. It can kill, maim and poison victims.

Air-dropping WP over inhabited areas is prohibited but its use in open areas is legal under international law.

On 21 March, a Russian airstrike damaged a fertiliser factory in Sumy, leaking out ammonia. Russia denied responsibilty and claimed a false flag operation by Ukraine. By 4 April the town had been retaken by Ukrainian forces.