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What do we do if Putin uses chemical weapons?

There are reports that Russia may be planning to use, or, according to unverified reports from local officials in Mariupol, may have already used, chemical weapons as part of its offensive in eastern Ukraine.

The Biden administration has already established a Tiger Team from national security officials to consider options should this happen; now is the time for these discussions to become more public.

A rescuer carrying a child after a suspected chemical weapons attack in the rebel-held city of Douma, near Damascus, Syria in 2018. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

We’ve been down this road before, wrong.

In August 2012, Barack Obama publicly warned the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria against the use of chemical weapons.

“A red line for us is that we start to see a lot of chemical weapons moving around or being used,” he said.

“That would change my calculation.”

It did not.

The following year, reports emerged that Assad had begun using chemical weapons, culminating in an attack with sarin gas in a suburb of Damascus.

Obama wavered, fearing a broader war.

The British parliament voted against taking military action in Syria.

Republicans in Congress switched overnight from aggressive interventionists to skeptical isolationists.

Vladimir Putin stepped in with a face-saving offer for Assad to divest himself voluntarily of his chemical arsenal.

The Obama administration boasted that it had achieved the best possible result.

But it later came to light that Assad had not given up his entire arsenal and continued to use chlorine gas against their adversaries without consequence.

Putin cemented his alliance with Assad, eventually leading to the introduction of Russian forces into Syria in 2015.

And served as a predicate for the seizure of crimea by Russia a few months later.

Obama’s hesitation on Syria ‘was decisive’, former French president recently said Francois Hollande to my colleague Roger Cohen.

“Decisive for American credibility, and that had consequences. After that, I think, Putin considered Obama weak.”

This is not a scenario that the Biden team can afford to repeat.

What should the administration do?

Make only promises you intend to keep

The use of chemical weapons by Syria was a military, humanitarian and international norms crisis.

Obama’s red line turned it into a crisis of American credibility, one whose consequences were far more far-reaching than anything that happened in Syria.

The US response must be asymmetric

President Joe Biden issued a veiled threat to Putin when they met last June in Geneva, mentioning the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline:

“I looked at it. I said, ‘Well, how would you feel if ransomware took over your oilfield pipelines?'”

That was fair warning.

Exercise maximum diplomatic pressure on Germany and other European states to end imports of oil and gas from Russia.

By one estimate, those sales provide the Kremlin with $1 billion a day.

Berlin remains the weakest link in the effort to create an effective sanctions regime against Russia.

This position, cowardly now, will become morally untenable for Germany if Russia starts gassing Ukrainians.

It should lead to the immediate removal of all Russian financial institutions from the transaction system SWIFT to make payments for oil and gas almost impossible.

Tear apart Russia’s supply chains.

This is the project of Under Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo, who has been looking for ways to disrupt the Kremlin’s military supply chains.

It should go beyond this to all sectors of the Russian economy, automatically prohibiting any company that does business in Russia from also doing business in the United States and hopefully Europe.

Arm Ukraine with offensive weapons

“If it turns out that Putin used chemical weapons, a favorite modus operandi. from poisoning political opponents to supporting its use on the Syrian battlefield – the West must respond aggressively,” former NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis wrote to me on Tuesday.

“Assuming these weapons are delivered by air, it ups the ante by giving the Ukrainians even more tools to run an effective no-fly zone, including fighter jets. MIG-29 and possibly other platforms and drones with anti-aircraft capabilities.”

Objective Belarus

The Biden administration is wary of a direct confrontation with Russia.

It should be much less moderate in going after the Kremlin’s puppet regime.

Turning off the lights in Minsk for a day would be a useful shot while the dictator Alexander Lukashenko consider joining the Kremlin’s military effort.

expect the worst

“He has no qualms against really horrible activity,” another former high-ranking US military commander told me about Aleksandr Dvornikov, Russia’s new theater commander.

“That is what he did in Aleppo.”

One of the hallmarks of Assad’s use of chemical weapons is that he began to use them discreet, but it grew bolder over time.

The effect, the former officer warned, could be a “Cumulative Srebrenica”, referring to the 1995 Serbian massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Bosnia.

Plan a long war

Making sure we can provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs for at least a year.

Begin training Ukrainian forces in advanced Western combat systems.

Prepare to isolate Russia from the global economy for a decade.

We may not be able to stop Putin from using chemical weapons, but we can still prevent the fatal mistake we made a decade ago with Assad.

c.2022 The New York Times Company

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