For the first few months of 2003, I was in the Kurdish capital, Erbil, in northern Iraq, an area outside the control of the Iraqi government, waiting for the start of the US-led invasion. The Kurds were far too accustomed to conventional warfare, but what really scared them was the prospect of Saddam Hussein’s forces using chemical weapons.
The Kurds had been assured by President George W Bush and Tony Blair, along with the rest of the world, that the Iraqi dictator was hiding his weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Fifteen years earlier in 1988, Iraqi forces had used mustard gas and nerve agents to kill 5,000 Kurdish civilians in the town of Halabja – the largest direct use of poison gas as a weapon against a civilian target in history. No wonder people in Erbil and other Kurdish cities, none of them so far from Halabja, were afraid that the accident would happen again.
A large part of the population fled from urban areas to camp out on the plains and mountains or stow into small villages. The remaining ones bought plastic wrap, often in inappropriate festive red, blue and yellow colors, which they put over doors and windows of their houses and shops in a pathetic hope that it would keep the deadly gas out.
In the case, the chemical and biological weapons of the Iraqi government proved to be a myth, but the terror they caused was very real.
It is now being reborn 34 years after Halabja, because Russia, unlike Iraq, certainly possesses weapons of mass destruction and may be tempted to use them. Thursday in Brussels, President Joe Biden warned the Kremlin against using chemical weapons, and said such an attack “would trigger a response in kind”. He did not specify what this retaliation would consist of, but even a suspicion that chemical weapons are a possibility could trigger yet another gigantic exodus of Ukrainians, as it did in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The public reason given by the United States to assume that Russia might be considering chemical warfare is that Russia has claimed that biological weapons were developed in Ukrainian laboratories funded by the Pentagon. This appears to be a crude piece of propaganda, and the laboratories in question were developing common pathogens for public health purposes. The most likely explanation for President Vladimir Putin’s accusation is that he groped around for imaginary threats to explain to the Russian public why he started his war, and not because he plans to use chemical weapons himself.
Nevertheless, the rise of the weapons of mass destruction issue is another step in the escalating ladder in Ukraine and contributes to the gloomy uncertainties. In Iraq, the very existence of weapons of mass destruction was long discussed. In Syria, controversy raged over whether they had been used or not, and if so, by whom. In Russia, there is no doubt that the weapons are there and can be deployed immediately.
Regardless of the real threat from chemical weapons, the risk of weapons of mass destruction being used has risen to a level never seen in Europe since 1945. Most ominously, the danger of a nuclear exchange is higher now than it was at the height of the Cold War between Western powers and the Soviet Union.
This danger is not static, but has become more serious since Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24 and became even more acute over the next four weeks as a Russian force demonstration became a sign of weakness. The Russian conventional military machine turns out to be weaker than anyone had expected, unable to defeat the small Ukrainian army and therefore unlikely to stand up to NATO forces.
The only way the Kremlin can balance the military balance of power would be through its nuclear arsenal and, in particular, through its 1,000 to 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons.
This emphasis on the nuclear option is not a new development, as the Russian army has been aware of its declining capacity for 30 years. During the first Cold War between the late 1940s and 1989, the weight of the United States and the USSR was placed on nuclear weapons between 2,000 and 3,000 times stronger than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. This made “mutually assured destruction” an overwhelmingly powerful deterrent to launching a nuclear attack.
But in recent decades, the emphasis in the United States and especially in Russia has been on the development of smaller nuclear devices with a third or half of the power of the Hiroshima bomb. The purpose of this reduction in destructive capacity is to make it possible to place such weapons on a battlefield to destroy a convoy or an enemy stronghold.
This is dangerous and untested military terrain, as no one knows how the other side would react, and an exchange of tactical nuclear missiles in the open landscape can quickly escalate to the apocalyptic destruction of cities with intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Russian troops have long practiced the transition from conventional to nuclear war at the tactical level. The Russian military is said to have repeatedly held exercises in which Kaliningrad, the vulnerable Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea, is successfully defended using nuclear weapons.
Supporters of a tougher NATO line against Russia argue that Putin will not risk a nuclear exchange. But This is a risky wild card due to we do not know how Putin and his advisers will respond to pressure. What is clear is that they have made a series of catastrophic misjudgments in the last month by underestimating the strength of Ukrainian resistance, exaggerating Russia’s military capabilities and miscalculating the strength of NATO’s response to the invasion.
Such a track record of unforced errors of this gravity, mistakes likely rooted in hubris and misinformation, does not give confidence that Putin and his inner circle will show better judgment when it comes to chemical and nuclear weapons.
Paradoxically, those most inclined to demand that NATO take a tougher line on Putin, whom they condemn as a mad and evil dictator, will withdraw if his bluff is called by force enough. This bit of wishful thinking seems to be based on nothing but the schoolyard’s nostrum that “a bully is always a coward”. In reality, no one knows how Putin would react if his back is against the wall and he is fighting for the survival of his regime.
Political leaders may understand these risks, but they are under popular pressure, just as their predecessors were a century ago during World War I, to act more militantly. Russophobia is the mood of the day, just like Germanophobia was in 1914. A literary course on Dostoevsky is dropped in California (though reinstated after protests), and Tchaikovsky is purged from a concert program in Cardiff. As the Russians advance in Ukraine, seeking to bomb and bomb cities of submission, Western television screens will be filled with images of dead and dying children for months. Diplomatic compromise will be at a discount.
An additional factor that makes the second Cold War against Moscow more dangerous than the first is that the former fear of a nuclear Armageddon has largely evaporated. The fact that it has never happened has created a feeling that it could never have happened – even though any realistic risk assessment suggests that the danger today is greater than it ever was in the past.