US warns Russia against use of chemical, biological weapons—echoes warnings to Iraq in 1991

In their discussion, Sullivan warned Patrushev against using chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Feb. 11, 2022 (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Feb. 11, 2022 (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan24) — US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Nikolay Patrushev, on Wednesday in what was the highest level discussion between Washington and Moscow since Russia’s assault on Ukraine on Feb. 24.

In their discussion, Sullivan warned Patrushev against using chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine.

The US concern has arisen, in part, because Russian officials—including President Vladimir Putin himself—have repeatedly claimed that the US has biological weapons labs in Ukraine.

"A network of dozens of laboratories operated in Ukraine, where military biological programs, including experiments with samples of coronavirus, anthrax, cholera, African swine fever and other deadly diseases, were carried out under the supervision and financial support of the Pentagon,” Putin charged on Wednesday.

“They are now strenuously trying to cover up the evidence of these secret programs,” he claimed, maintaining the programs had represented a serious threat to Russia.

US officials have repeatedly denied such preposterous charges. But their repetition raises concern that Moscow is working to establish a pretext for the use of such weapons itself.

In addition, Pentagon officials have cited other “indications” that Moscow is readying such an attack, but they have declined to provide details.

Read More: Security Council to meet on Russian charge of US biological weapons, as US vehemently denies allegations

Putin expected a quick victory, but Ukrainians have fought tenaciously and Russian forces have done poorly. The concern is that Putin will, as he faces humiliation, if not defeat, resort to banned weapons.

Saddam Hussein Precedent

Putin is not Saddam Hussein, and as the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, observed, ”No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river, and he's not the same man.”

But it nonetheless seems appropriate to review a history, largely forgotten, that comes closer to the current confrontation with Russia than any other recent event.

It is, in fact, a rather dramatic history—but it is little known, in large part, because although Bill Clinton, in the 1992 campaign, complained that Bush should have got rid of Saddam during the war, after Clinton became president in January 1993, he didn’t want to deal with Saddam!

The Clinton administration then regularly minimized the danger he posed, while Israel suffered similar amnesia. The Israeli Prime Minister, Itzhak Shamir from the conservative Likud party, was aghast when Bush ended the 1991 war with Saddam in power. But Shamir lost the Israeli elections to the Labor leader, Itzhak Rabin, in 1992.

With Rabin’s election, Israel’s attention shifted from Iraq to Iran and to the “peace process.” It was thought that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a grand reconciliation between Israel and the Arabs was now possible.

Indeed, that was the Clinton administration’s primary focus in the Middle East for eight years! However, the results of this diplomatic effort were rather limited, while, quite arguably, the neglect of other issues—including terrorism—led to very serious problems.

Warnings against using Chemical/Biological Weapons: 1991, 2022

Wednesday’s exchange between Sullivan and Patrushev marks the first time in 31 years that the US has warned a foreign country against using chemical or biological agents.

On Jan. 9, 1991, US Secretary of State James Baker met Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in Geneva. On the eve of the Gulf War, Baker warned Aziz that Iraq should not use such weapons.

"If the conflict starts, God forbid, and chemical or biological weapons are used against our forces,” Baker told Aziz, “the American people would demand revenge, and we have the means to implement this.”

Saddam, as it turned out, did not use such weapons during the war. But he did use chemical weapons to suppress the post-war uprising among the Shi’ites following President George H. W. Bush’s pre-mature declaration of a ceasefire on Feb. 28, 1991.

In early March, as reports emerged from southern Iraq that Saddam was using chemical weapons, the US again warned Baghdad against using such weapons. But the warning’s impact was limited.

As US intelligence concluded thirteen years later, in 2004, following the second Iraq war, Saddam had used sarin gas against the uprising in the south in early March 1991.

In the latter part of March, it was fear that, as Saddam turned his forces north to confront the Kurds, his troops would use chemical weapons against them. which caused millions of people to flee to the Turkish and Iranian borders. They believed that Saddam would not use such weapons—where the whole world could see—on the international borders.

Read More: The Kurdish Exodus: 25th Anniversary

The Kurdish flight, in turn, precipitated Operation Provide Comfort, which brought the refugees down from the mountains and laid the foundation for the establishment of the Kurdistan Region and its institutions, as the Kurdish leader, Masoud Barzani, explained last year on the 30th anniversary of Provide Comfort.

Read More: Masoud Barzani hails Operation Provide Comfort, even as he warns of current dangers

We might also note that the US warning to Russia against using chemical or biological weapons was made on the 34th anniversary of the most notorious use of such weapons in modern times: the March 16, 1988, attack on Halabja, in which Iraqi forces used a mixture of mustard gas, tabun, VX, and sarin.

Some 5,000 people were killed and another 10,000 were left blinded, maimed, or disfigured.

Finally, an astonishing revelation about Saddam’s proscribed weapons programs emerged in the latter half of 1995.

UNSCOM (UN Special Commission) was the name for the unit of weapons inspectors established after the Gulf War to destroy what was left of Saddam’s WMD programs and create monitoring protocols to ensure they were not restarted.

In the summer of 1995, UNSCOM believed it had destroyed almost all of Saddam’s WMD programs. Only Iraq’s biological weapons program remained outstanding, it thought.

At that point, Saddam began moving to expel UNSCOM from Iraq. But Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamil, who had been in charge of Iraq’s WMD programs, suddenly defected.

As a result of Kamil’s defection, it was learned that all of Iraq’s WMD programs were much larger and more sophisticated than UNSCOM had believed.

UNSCOM also learned that Saddam had prepared for an astonishing retaliation, if he and his regime were to fall.

Following the Nov. 29, 1990, UN Security Council vote authorizing the Gulf War, Iraq filled warheads for twenty-five SCUD missiles with the biological agents, anthrax and botulinum.

The missiles were taken to distant airfields, where the commanders had instructions to fire them at targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia if, in the war that was coming, the coalition were to march on Baghdad.

That revelation, as well as the others that came from Kamil’s defection, might have received more attention—and they should have. But by that time, much of the world, including Washington, had moved on. Iraq was no longer of great interest.

“Saddam Hussein does not forgive and forget. His foes brought him close to perdition and then let him off,” the Israeli scholar, Uriel Dann, an expert on Iraq, wrote in the spring of 1991, as he lambasted Bush for his decision to end the Gulf War with Saddam in power.

“He will strive to exact revenge, as long as there is life in his body,” Dann continued. “This must never be put out of mind: Saddam Hussein from now on lives for revenge.”

Dann was right—but that, too, got lost in the years after the 1991 Gulf War. Whether something similar will happen with Putin after his failed war remains to be seen.