NATO Boosts Forces in East Amid Chemical Incidents Warning

By BLOOMBERG

NATO agreed to boost its deployments in the eastern portion of the defense alliance, doubling the number of battle groups to eight, as the U.S. said it is working with NATO to prepare for possible chemical or even nuclear incidents by Russia.

NATO implored China not to provide economic or military support to Moscow, as the world’s leading developed nations warned President Vladimir Putin against deploying chemical weapons amid his stalled invasion of Ukraine. 

“I think that if Putin were to engage in anything like that, the consequences would be very severe,” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters in Brussels on Thursday. “You have to have a bit of ambiguity about your about your response, but I think it would be catastrophic for him if he were to do that, and I think that he understands that.”

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance has “a responsibility to ensure the conflict does not escalate further because this would be even more dangerous and even more devastating.” NATO on Thursday extended his term for another year, through September 2023, even though he had been selected to head Norway’s central bank.

A senior U.S. official said Thursday that Washington is working with allies on preparation and deterrence postures over Russian weapons of mass destruction, as well as on potential medical and other countermeasures to help Ukraine. The official spoke as U.S. President Joe Biden met with NATO leaders in Brussels, one day after U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan downplayed the risks of a nuclear attack. Officials remain particularly concerned about a chemical incident.

“Any use of chemical weapons will totally change the nature of the conflict,” Stoltenberg said. “It will be a blatant violation of international law and it will have widespread consequences and of course be extremely dangerous.”

Stoltenberg said General Tod Wolters, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, had activated chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense elements as part of the alliance’s defense plans. That could include, for instance, incorporating under his command a Czech battalion that specializes in so-called CBRN threats, a NATO official said.

Biden noted that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addressed the NATO leaders by videoconference on Thursday.

“We will continue to support him and his government with significant, and increasing, amounts of security assistance to fight Russian aggression and uphold their right to self-defense,” he said in a statement after the NATO meeting.

Summit Trio

Biden is in Brussels for a trio of summits with NATO, the Group of Seven and the European Union as world leaders display their unity in countering Russia’s invasion and try to come up with measure to cope with the economic fallout.

G-7 leaders issued a joint statement pledging to impose “severe consequences” on Russia by fully implementing the sanctions that countries have already imposed and saying they stand ready to apply additional measures.

“We task the relevant ministers in a focused initiative to monitor the full implementation of sanctions and to coordinate responses related to evasive measures, including regarding gold transactions by the Central Bank of Russia,” the statement said. 

The U.S. announced a new package of sanctions on Russian elites, lawmakers and defense companies, including on Herman Gref, the head of Russia’s Sberbank and a Putin adviser, and 17 board members of the Russian financial institution Sovcombank. 

Russia has suffered punishing losses in the opening weeks of the conflict, with NATO estimatessuggesting that at least 7,000 troops have died and noting the actual death toll could be as high as 15,000. The U.K. defense ministry said Thursday that Russia is likely looking to mobilize its reservist and conscript manpower, as well as private military companies and foreign mercenaries.

Ukraine, meanwhile, showed an unexpected unity and strength over the past month despite severe attacks against civilian targets and as millions of people fled their homes. Zelenskiy has said Russian soldiers have killed more Ukrainian civilians than soldiers. The images of Moscow’s siege of cities like Mariupol have only galvanized Ukrainians to stage protests against Russian troops.

“We still have a very difficult period ahead of us,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in Facebook post marking the first month of the war. “The Russian war machine will not stop until it is drowned in the blood of its own soldiers. The Russian society is already experiencing some of the consequences but is intimidated and passive.”

Ukraine will fight on as it will “not let anyone take our state away from us,” he added. “The state which generations of Ukrainians dreamed of, fought and died for.”

Despite the heavy losses, Putin has shown no sign of reversing of course, even as the flurry of economic sanctions imposed by the U.S., EU and the U.K. take an increasing toll. There’s growing evidence of shortages of goods in Russia as consumers start to feel the impact of sweeping sanctions.

‘Real Threat’

The U.S. warnings on chemical and nuclear incidents suggests growing concern that Putin will lash out with his military suffering heavy losses. Biden, speaking at the White House Wednesday, said there’s “a real threat” that Russia will use chemical weapons.

NATO officials are studying different scenarios around Russia’s possible use of chemical agents as weapons of mass destruction, alliance officials said. A so-called false flag event could involve an accident on a chemical plant given the significant amounts of ammonia, chlorine and nitrates in Ukraine that are used in its agricultural industry.

Another scenario considers Russia using a chemical weapon that could involve a highly toxic agent delivered across a wide area, the officials said. These kinds of attacks, however, would allow immediate attribution and it’s unclear whether Russia would want to avoid that, they added.

“You have to say if this should be part of any preparations for a false-flag operation or something like this, in which those who are pointing out such things are at the end the ones who are using such weapons themselves, then this would breach all agreements and all rules and conventions that exist,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said at a news conference in Brussels. “So it’s not only our responsibility to point out to this but also use direct talks to say: ‘Don’t do that.’”

If Putin initiated a chemical attack, it would still be highly unlikely that NATO allies would intervene militarily unless Article 5, the alliance’s collective defense agreement, was invoked, a Western official said. Still, that doesn’t mean allies would sit back and do nothing, the official said, adding allies were remaining deliberately ambiguous about which severe consequences they would impose so that Putin wouldn’t be able to price that into his calculations.

The official said there was work ongoing to figure out how best to provide Ukraine with the protective equipment given that allies don’t have enough to provide for Ukraine’s entire population and don’t know where, when or how use of chemical weapons may unfold.

Sullivan suggested Wednesday the U.S. doesn’t have specifics on whether Putin’s planning has changed.

“We haven’t seen anything that’s made us adjust our posture — our nuclear posture, but it’s, of course, something that we will have to continue to stay in close consultation with allies and partners on, as well as communicate directly to the Russians on,” Sullivan said.

The G-7 leaders also plan to pledge help for nations as they try to wean themselves off their dependence on Russian oil. 

“We will ensure secure alternative and sustainable supplies, and act in solidarity and close coordination in the case of possible supply disruptions,” the draft says. The leaders also call on oil- and gas-producing nations to increase deliveries.

The U.S. and EU are expected to announce a deal on Friday aimed at slashing Europe’s dependence on Russia energy.