Gates says chances of Russia using chemical or nuclear weapons ‘pretty low’
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the odds of Russian President Vladimir Putin deploying chemical and nuclear weapons in his war on Ukraine are low, despite warnings coming from the White House and elsewhere.
A chemical watchdog group is currently investigating Ukrainian claims that Russia used a chemical weapon in the port city of Mariupol, after troops and civilians developed respiratory illnesses.
“I think the odds of him using chemical or nuclear weapons is at this point pretty low and for a couple of reasons,” Gates said during an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Biological weapons are essentially uncontrollable, so I think that’s kind of not in the cards. A chemical weapon is possible. I mean, we’ve seen the Russians use them before. We’ve seen them use them in Syria. We’ve seen them elsewhere,” he added.
However, he said using chemical weapons was unlikely to be in Russia’s strategic interests.
“At this point, with the sole exception of one area in Ukraine, not much of a mass of Ukrainian soldiers, so it’s hard to see what the military target of a chemical weapon would be that would have strategic consequence, have strategic significance, that would outweigh the potential international consequences of using those weapons,” he said.
Gates said the will of the Ukrainian people was also too strong for a chemical weapon to be effective in breaking their spirit and could have the opposite effect.
“That value, if you could call it that, of a chemical weapon is really as a terror weapon, as a means of trying to break the will of the Ukrainian people, and I think what we’ve seen so far is that we’re actually past that moment,” Gates said.
“The Ukrainians have passed that test, and the use of chemical weapons, I think, would only add more steel to their spine at this point,” he added.
The White House warned more than a month ago that Russia could use chemical weapons in Ukraine, after Moscow alleged the United States was housing biological weapons in Ukrainian territory.
The U.S., NATO and the World Health Organization have all started preparing for such attacks.
While Gates said he does not believe the U.S. and NATO would respond “in kind” to a Russian chemical attack, he would expect the West to be more aggressive in its assistance to Ukraine.
“The use of a chemical weapon and much more so a tactical nuclear weapon, I think, would reopen the conversation about no-fly zones, about providing heavier equipment, much heavier and newer equipment to the Ukrainians, and so on,” he added.
Gates said there are also no military reasons for Putin to use targeted nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
“Again, what’s the military value of it? It’s really more of a terror weapon, at this point and the consequences of crossing that threshold are, I think, pretty consequential,” he said, also noting the geographical risk of such weapons.
“The winds there blow from the west. So radiation from the use of a tactical nuclear weapons in eastern Ukraine is going to end up in Russia,” Gates said.
“I think the odds are pretty low. They’re not zero,” he added.
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