May 23, 2024

The United States has accused Russia of breaching the global ban on chemical weapons by using the choking agent chloropicrin against Ukrainian soldiers and deploying riot control agents “as a method of warfare” in Ukraine.

“The use of such chemicals is not an isolated incident, and is probably driven by Russian forces’ desire to dislodge Ukrainian forces from fortified positions and achieve tactical gains on the battlefield,” the State Department said in a statement on Wednesday that also announced new sanctions against entities linked to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Chloropicrin, a nearly colourless oily liquid which causes severe irritation to the eyes, skin and lungs, was used in large quantities during World War I, according to the US’s National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety.

While it continues to be used as an agricultural pesticide, its use in war is banned under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

Russia has said it no longer possesses a military chemical arsenal, but the country faces pressure for more transparency over its alleged use of toxic chemicals.

In addition to chloropicrin, Russian forces have used grenades loaded with CS and CN gasses, the Reuters news agency reported earlier this month, citing the Ukrainian military.

It added that at least 500 Ukrainian soldiers had been treated for exposure to toxic substances and one died after suffocating on tear gas.

Gyundoz Mamedov, the deputy prosecutor general in Ukraine until 2021, posted on social media on April 24 that the Russian army had used tear gas against Ukrainian forces at least 900 times over the previous six months, with more than 1,400 incidents since it began its full-scale invasion in February 2022.

While civilians can usually escape such gasses during protests, soldiers confined to trenches without gas masks are forced to either flee under enemy fire or risk suffocation.

The State Department said Moscow’s use of chloropicrin and “ongoing disregard” for the CWC “comes from the same playbook as its operations to poison Aleksei Navalny and Sergei and Yulia Skripal with Novichok nerve agents.”

Navalny, who died suddenly in an Arctic prison colony in February, was poisoned with Novichok in 2020.

Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence agent given asylum in the United Kingdom, survived an assassination attempt in 2018 that also almost killed his daughter. A British police officer who investigated the case also became severely ill while Dawn Sturgess, a woman who was inadvertently given the discarded bottle that contained the poison, died four months later after spraying herself with the liquid thinking it was a perfume.

The British government concluded that the Russian state was “almost certainly” behind the attack.

Moscow denied involvement in both the Skripal and Navalny poisonings.

The US statement said it was sanctioning three Russian state entities linked to Moscow’s chemical and biological weapons programmes, including a specialised military unit that facilitated the use of chloropicrin against Ukrainian troops.

Four Russian companies that support the three entities were also sanctioned, it added.

The sanctions freeze any US assets belonging to the targeted entities and generally prohibit Americans from doing business with them.

Separately, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on three entities and two individuals involved in purchasing items for Russian military institutes involved in the country’s chemical and biological weapons programmes.

The sanctions were among a number of new measures targeting Russia over its 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The CWC bans the production and use of chemical weapons. It also requires the 193 countries that have ratified the convention, which include Russia and the US, to destroy any stocks of banned chemicals.

Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of breaching the treaty in Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) meetings.

In 2022, the organisation expressed concern about reports that Russia has used chemical weapons in its assault on the port of Mariupol, but it says it has not been formally asked to open any investigation into the use of prohibited substances in Ukraine.

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