CBW Events is a project to create a record of events to enable and encourage understanding of how policies on the issues relating to chemical and biological warfare (CBW) and its prevention are developed.

Frequently Asked Questions -- the Ukraine situation and chemical and biological weapons issues (all external links will open in a new window)

These FAQs will be updated from time to time by Richard Guthrie. Happy to receive feedback or suggestions for more topics to be covered. The first iteration of this page was published on Monday 14 March 2022. Additional or updated questions/answers will be clearly indicated.

Overarching Questions

Is there a difference between chemical and biological weapons?
Yes. Chemical weapons rely on the ability of substances that are toxic to poison the body and so cause injury or death. Biological weapons are based on the disease-causing effects of living things, mostly microbes, either through the actions of the the organism itself or by toxins the organism produces. Disease-causing microbes are known as "pathogens". As toxins derived from living organisms are (by their very nature) toxic chemicals, there is an overlap between chemical and biological weapons. However, as most of each type of weapon fall outside of the overlap they are often considered separately.

Are there differences between a chemical agent and a chemical weapon or between a biological agent and a biological weapon?
In theory, any toxic chemical could be a chemical weapon (and is treated as such under international law) just as any pathogen could be a biological weapon. However, in order to make a practical biological or chemical weapon any toxic chemical or pathogen has to be delivered in such a way to bring it in contact with people (or animals and plants) in order for there to be an effect. This limits the range of chemical and biological materials that can be used for hostile purposes. In short, a chemical or biological agent can only be utilized as a chemical or biological weapon if it can be combined with a system to deliver it. However, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, even by people specializing in this area, and this can sometime cause confusion about what is being specifically referred to in any particular case.

What is the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)?
Chemical Weapons Convention is an international treaty that prohibits the production and use of chemicals as weapons that rely on their toxic properties. The text was agreed in 1992, it was opened for signature in January 1993 and entered into force on 29 April 1997. The CWC established an international body, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), based in The Hague. The OPCW Technical Secretariat receives declarations of production of chemicals of concern and has powers to visit chemical production sites to see that activities are consistent with what has been declared. The OPCW also has powers to investigate allegations of use of chemical weapons. All states parties to the CWC are obliged to destroy any stocks of chemical weapons they might have possessed.

What is the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)?
Biological Weapons Convention is an international treaty that prohibits biological and toxin weapons -- essentially weapons that disseminate disease-causing organisms or toxins to harm or kill humans, animals or plants. The text was agreed in 1971, it was opened for signature in April 1972 and entered into force on 26 March 1975. The BWC lacks an institutional framework and so, unlike the CWC agreed two decades later, it has no arrangement for routine oversight of industrial activities nor for investigation allegations of use. A small Implementation Support Unit supports the functioning of the BWC and the convening of meetings.

Chemical weapons issues

Who has chemical weapons?
[updated 14 March] During the years of the Cold War, a number of countries had significant chemical weapons programmes. At the time that the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) entered into force for them, the following countries declared that they possessed chemical weapons: Albania, India, Libya, the Russia, Syria, the USA and "a State Party" [allowed anonymity under the CWC and generally understood to be the Republic of Korea]. When joining the CWC, countries also have to declare whether they have had any sites used for making the toxic chemicals for chemical weapons ["Chemical Weapons Production Facilities" (CWPFs)] since 1 January 1946. Declaration of CWPFs indicate a programme active at some point since the Second World War (but if no declaration of stocks of chemical weapons holdings this would suggest a programme terminated at some stage before CWC entry into force for them). There have been 14 countries declaring CWPFs under the CWC: Bosnia and Herzegovina, China, France, India, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Libya, Russia, Syria, the UK, the USA, Yugoslavia, and "one other State Party" [see above]. There are four countries that are not members of the CWC: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Egypt, Israel (which has signed, but not ratified, the Convention) and South Sudan. It is possible that there is some possession of chemical weapons amongst these countries outside of the Convention. There have been allegations that non-state groups have taken steps to acquire chemical weapons. The OPCW has
concluded that "Considering the identified gaps, inconsistencies, and discrepancies that remain unresolved, the Secretariat assesses that the declaration submitted by the Syrian Arab Republic still cannot be considered accurate and complete ...". Allegations that Russian authorities were involved in the poisonings of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the UK and Alexei Navalny in Russia raise questions of whether remnants of the Soviet then Russian chemical weapons programme continue to exist.

If the CWC bans chemical weapons, have they all been destroyed? [updated 15 March]
According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a total of 72,304 metric tons of chemical agents were declared under the Chemical Weapons Convention, of which 71,614 metric tons had been destroyed under international supervision [data correct as of
31 January 2022]. This means over 99 per cent of all declared chemical weapons have now been destroyed. Any stocks of chemical weapons not declared would not be included in these figures, but excluding any stocks from declaration would be a significant breach of the Convention. The two largest stockpiles were declared by Russia and the USA with both stockpiles due to be destroyed by 2007 (with the possibility of a single 5-year extension to the deadline) as mandated under the Convention. However, technical, environmental and safety issues delayed the destruction efforts of both countries for a considerable time. Russia completed its destruction programme in September 2017, accompanied by a speech by Vladimir Putin. The USA is the only country that has not yet completed destruction of its declared stocks, the remainder of which are currently scheduled to be destroyed during 2023, with only two destruction sites remaining.

What are the different types of chemical weapons?
Chemical weapons fall into five main types:

White phosphorus is used by many military forces in order to create smokescreens to confuse enemy forces. A side effect of creation of the smokescreen is that the smoke is toxic. When the primary purpose of the use of white phosphorus is to create a smokescreen on a battlefield its use is considered legitimate under international law. However, if the material is used with the intention of generating a toxic smoke to harm people through those toxic effects it is then being used as a chemical weapon.

How often have chemical weapons been used in the past? [updated 14 March]
Confirmed uses of chemical weapons are thankfully rare. There have been many more claims of chemical weapons use that have later been shown to be spurious. Most such claims have been made for propaganda purposes, in order to make an opponent look bad in the eyes of the international community. Since the end of the First World War there have been barely a dozen conflicts in which the use of chemical weapons has been considered to be confirmed. See, for example, the list on page 35 of: World Health Organization,
Public health response to biological and chemical weapons - WHO guidance (2004). This list does not include the more recent use in Syria nor does this list include use of chemical weapons in assassinations, or attempted assassinations. At the time of the compilation of the WHO list there were a number of allegations of use of chemical weapons in the fighting in Chechnya, none of which were investigated under international supervision. Chemical weapons have been used in recent years in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia and the poisonings of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the UK and Alexei Navalny in Russia.

Are there treatments for exposure to chemical weapons?
There are many treatments, but not all that would be available in a conflict zone like that in Ukraine. Depending on the level of exposure, casualties may need intensive in-hospital medical care.

What is the point of using chemical weapons?
Historically, use of chemical warfare was all about gaining advantage on the battlefield. The more recent use in Syria has been about attacks on rebel-held areas and seems intended, at least in part, to undermine the morale of the civilian population. This means that the types and deployments of chemical weapons by Syria does not always match the Cold War-era doctrines that the two superpowers had before the prohibition on these weapons took effect.

Hasn't the evidence of use of chemical weapons in Syria been disputed?
There has been considerable controversy, in particular in relation to the investigation of an incident in Douma, Syria in 2018. However, there have been numerous other incidents that have been investigated and the reports of these are available on the website of the
Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons -- the international body to support and verify a chemical-weapon-free world.

Biological laboratories in Ukraine

Is there any evidence of a biological weapons programme in Ukraine?
No. Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, speaking about Ukraine, told the UN Security Council on
11 March 2022, that: "The United Nations is not aware of any biological weapons programmes." Ukraine is a state party to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Russian authorities have recently made allegations that there has been such a programme and have based these allegations on suggestions that there is a network of US-funded laboratories carrying out research to support biological weapons activities. These suggestions have been dismissed by others.

Are there US-funded biological laboratories in Ukraine?
Yes. The programme started in 2004 under the Bush administration. Republican Senator Richard Lugar described the programme in 2005 in the following terms: "this high priority initiative includes a provision for a modern, safe and secure diagnostic health laboratory and a national network of epidemiological monitoring stations equipped to rapidly detect, diagnose and respond to infectious disease outbreaks throughout Ukraine, whether naturally occurring or as a result of bioterrorism" [US Department of State, press release, "U.S., Ukraine Sign Agreement to Counter Threat of Bioterrorism", 29 August 2005].

Are these laboratories secret?
No. When the programme was started, two of the key Senators behind the funding, Richard Lugar and Barack Obama, visited Ukraine and there was significant press coverage of the laboratories programme.

If these laboratories are for peaceful purposes, why do they handle dangerous diseases? [updated 22 March]
As the purpose of the laboratory funding was to promote understanding of diseases there will be activities that can only be carried out in specialized facilities. The laboratories will retain reference samples of some pathogens as these are required in order to prove that laboratory analysis is being carried out to the required standard. At the most basic level, if you run a sample of a reference material through your laboratory equipment you know what the result should be -- if there is any difference this shows that there may be a need to recalibrate the equipment, for example. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) describes the "Reference material resources" function of reference laboratories in the following terms: "If necessary, the reference laboratory develops and maintains - in accordance with international standards and procedures - a collection of relevant reference material that is to be shared with laboratories and organisations that request such materials. These materials can include reference laboratory strains and cultures, clinical isolates, sera, genetic materials, etc. These resources are important for the varied purposes of quality assurance systems, method evaluation and validation." [ECDC, "
Core functions of microbiology reference laboratories for communicable diseases", June 2010, 13+iv pp at p 5.]

Are these new allegations? [added 22 March]
Only part of the allegations is new. There have been a number of earlier allegations made in meetings held within the
Biological Weapons Convention in recent years. For example, at the BWC Meeting of Experts in 2015, Russia responded to a claim by Ukraine that Ukraine's disease monitoring capabilities had been hindered by the loss of access by the central government to a laboratory located in Crimea, the territory of which had been occupied by Russia the year before. Exercising its right of reply, Russia stated: "According to our assessment, the system of internal bio-security in the territory which is still left under control of groups that came to the power after the coup d'état in Kiev is catastrophic. The prophylactic-epidemiological service built in the Soviet Union which had a unique methodological base and practical experience now is almost destroyed. A number of laboratories whish [sic] used to run routine but rather important monitoring of circulation of microorganisms among people and in the environment is practically disbanded. Instead of that some laboratories for work with dangerous pathogens were built by US DOD with the function of concentration of collections under US administration that obviously causes great concerns among the neighboring countries." [Russian Federation, "Russian Delegation’s talking points in exercising the right of reply to suggestions made by Ukrainian delegation with regard to the epidemic situation in the Russian Federal region of Crimea and in the territory in the South-East of Ukraine which is not under Kiev's control", 12 August 2015, 3 pp.] Russia made no mention of US-funded laboratories in its opening statement to that meeting.
     Similar allegations were made by Russia in a number of subsequent BWC meetings, but these allegations did not gain much traction in these meetings of specialists in biological issues.
     In 2021, China joined with Russia to make a joint statement to the 2020 Meeting of States Parties of the Biological Weapons Convention (held in 2021 owing to the pandemic). This statement suggested that "over 200 US biological laboratories are deployed outside its national territory, which function in opaque and non-transparent manner" and that these "cause serious concerns and questions among the international community over its compliance with the BWC". The USA provided a working paper to the same meeting entitled "Article X Cooperation and Laboratory Support: The Example of the Biological Threat Reduction Program" which outlined the purposes of the programme and listed the number of facilities supported in each of the 30 partner countries.

Does Russia fund any biological laboratories outside of its territory? [added 22 March]
Yes. Russia informed the
2020 Meeting of States Parties of the Biological Weapons Convention (held in 2021 owing to the pandemic): "The Russian Federation has established reference laboratories for foot-and-mouth disease, avian influenza and Newcastle disease, collaborating centres for diagnosis and control of animal diseases as well as on food safety for Eastern Europe, Transcaucasia, and Central Asia. They serve as Reference Centres of the World Organization for Animal Health and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations." [Russian Federation, "Report on Implementation of Article X of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction", BWC/MSP/2020/WP.9, 22 November 2021, 3 pp.]

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