Was Biden's chemical weapons threat a gaffe?

25 March 2022

11:56 PM

25 March 2022

11:56 PM

Did Joe Biden mean to threaten Russia with a chemical weapons attack? That seemed to be what he implied at yesterday’s Nato summit when he said Russia using chemical weapons in Ukraine ‘would trigger a response in kind’ from the US. To respond ‘in kind’ means to respond in the same way – i.e. by firing chemical weapons back at Russia. Given that the US committed to destroying its remaining stockpiles of those munitions when it signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, it would seem very unlikely that this is what Biden meant. Or indeed, that he would have any chemical weapons to unleash in the first place.

There is something to be said for ambiguity. If Donald Trump were still president, Vladimir Putin would (along with the rest of us) have found it very hard to predict his reaction to the invasion of Ukraine. The one way to keep Putin in check, it might be argued, is to have someone even more belligerent on the other side.

It’s uncertain if Putin will have taken Biden’s threat seriously. The Russian leader will surely have in mind the words of Biden’s old boss, Barack Obama, when Assad was gearing up to use chemical weapons in 2012:

We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.

Assad deployed chemical weapons and a year later unleashed a sarin attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, killing hundreds of people. But Obama’s retaliation never came. Instead, the US held back, accepting assurances that the regime would hand over its reserves of chemical weapons – although it never did.

Biden made clear – even before the war – that the US would not involve itself in direct military conflict with Russia. It is a fair guess that Putin will be counting on Biden being cut from the same cloth as Obama – and that, despite Biden’s apparent threat, he might just get away with a chemical attack. Given Putin’s behaviour in recent weeks, few would bet against him committing such an atrocity – forcing Biden to work out what he really meant. Will it be a response ‘in kind’, or another kind of response?

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