In the early months of 2003, I was in the Kurdish capital Erbil in northern Iraq, an area outside Iraqi government control, waiting for the start of the US-led invasion. The Kurds were all too accustomed to conventional warfare, but what truly terrified 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 that far from Halabja, were frightened that the calamity would happen again.
Much of the population fled from urban areas to camp out in the plains and mountains or crammed into tiny villages. Those staying behind bought plastic sheeting, often in inappropriately festive red, blue and yellow colours, which they pinned over the doors and windows of their houses and shops in a pathetic hope that this would keep out the deadly gas.
In the event, Iraqi government chemical and biological weapons turned out 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 does possess WMD and may be tempted to use them. On Thursday in Brussels, President Joe Biden warned the Kremlin against using chemical weapons, saying that such an attack “would trigger a response in kind”. He did not spell out what this retaliation would consist of, but even a suspicion that chemical weapons are an option could spark off another giant exodus of Ukrainians, as it did in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The public reason given by the US for supposing that Russia might be considering chemical warfare is that Russia has claimed that biological weapons were being 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 was groping around for imaginary threats to explain to the Russian public why he launched his war and not because he plans to use chemical weapons himself.
Nevertheless, the raising of the WMD issue is another step in the escalatory ladder in Ukraine and adds to the grim uncertainties. In Iraq, the very existence of WMD was long debated. In Syria, controversy raged over whether or not they had been used and, if so, by whom. In Russia, there is no doubt the weapons are there and could be deployed immediately.
Whatever the real threat from chemical weapons, the risk of WMD 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 the Western powers and the Soviet Union.
This danger is not static but has became more serious since Putin invaded Ukraine on 24 February and became even more acute during the next four weeks as a Russian demonstration of strength became a show of weakness. The Russian conventional military machine turns out to be weaker than anybody expected, unable to defeat the small Ukrainian army and therefore unlikely to stand up against Nato forces.
The only way the Kremlin can even up the balance of military power will 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 since the Russian army has been aware of its declining capabilities for 30 years. During the first Cold War between the late 1940s and 1989, the emphasis in the US and USSR was on nuclear weapons between 2,000 and 3,000 times more powerful than the bomb which destroyed Hiroshima. This made “mutually assured destruction” an overwhelmingly powerful deterrent against launching a nuclear strike.
But in recent decades, the emphasis in the US and more especially in Russia, has been on the development of smaller nuclear devices with a third or half the power of the Hiroshima bomb. The purpose of this reduction in destructive capacity is to make it feasible to deploy such weapons on a battlefield to destroy a convoy or an enemy stronghold.
This is dangerous and untested military terrain, since nobody knows how the other side would react, and an exchange of tactical nuclear missiles in open countryside might swiftly escalate into the apocalyptic destruction of cities by Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.
Russian troops have long practiced the transition from conventional to nuclear warfare at the tactical level. The Russian military is reported to have repeatedly held exercises in which Kaliningrad, the vulnerable Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea, is defended successfully by the use of nuclear arms.
Proponents of a tougher Nato line against Russia argue that Putin would not risk a nuclear exchange. But this is a risky wild card because we do not know how Putin and his advisors will react to pressure. What is clear is that they have made a series of disastrous misjudgements in the last month by underestimating the strength of Ukrainian resistance, exaggerating Russia’s military capabilities, and miscalculating the vigour of the Nato reaction to the invasion.
Such a track record of unforced errors of this gravity, blunders probably rooted in hubris and misinformation, does not give confidence that Putin and his inner circle will show better judgement when it comes to chemical and nuclear weapons.
Paradoxically, those most prone to demand that Nato take a tougher line towards Putin, whom they denounce as a mad and evil dictator, argue that he will retreat if his bluff is called forcibly enough. This bit of wishful thinking appears to be based on nothing more than the schoolyard nostrum that “a bully is always a coward”. In reality, nobody knows how Putin would react if his back is to the wall and he is fighting for the survival of his regime.
Political leaders may understand these risks, but they are under popular pressure, as were their predecessors a century ago during the First World War, to act more militantly. Russophobia is the mood of the day, just as Germanophobia was in 1914. A literary course on Dostoyevsky is dropped in California (though reinstated after protests) and Tchaikovsky is purged from a concert programme in Cardiff. As the Russians grind forward in Ukraine, seeking to shell and bomb cities into submission, Western television screens will be filled with pictures of dead and dying children for months on end. Diplomatic compromise will be at a discount.
A further factor which makes the second cold war against Moscow more dangerousthan the first is that the previous dread of a nuclear Armageddon has largely evaporated. The fact that it never happened has fostered a feeling that it never could have happened – though any realistic risk assessment suggests that the danger today is greater than it ever was in the past.