Know the enemy - on the battlefield in Ukraine and in Congress

Bob McConnell
May 23, 2024

As the House Committee on Armed Services completed the mark-up of the 2025 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) it had to defeat two amendments from House Putin Caucus member Matt Gaetz (R-FL).  First Gaetz wanted to block transfers of cluster munitions and then he sought to restrict weapons transfers to Ukraine under presidential drawdown authority.

These supposed “conservative” anti-Ukraine “Republicans” either do not understand how critical Ukraine defeating Putin is to our national security interests or, at this point, refuse to understand reality for some contrived political reason.

This opposition continues in Congress and on this year’s campaign trail despite the overwhelming evidence that Russia is our avowed enemy intent on undermining our security interests and more.  Defending American interests is not and cannot be defined by our geographic borders – it wasn’t in the last century, and in the 21st century, the world is much “smaller” and more interdependent.

Evil exists, and it is on full display in Putin’s war.

We have talked about the too little reported abduction of Ukrainian children and Putin’s demonic program of reprogramming them and “making them” Russian.

Even less reported has been Russia’s use of chemical attacks on Ukraine, at least since last year.

We all need to understand Russia is our enemy, Russia threatens us and our allies, and Russia does not behave as a civilized nation.

KNOW THY ENEMY - Indiscriminate killing of non-combatants, destruction of hospitals, schools, and infrastructure, abduction of children, and chemical attacks on human beings!

In today’s The Wall Street Journal, there appeared a much-needed article about Russia’s use of chemicals on the battlefield.

Like the genocide involved in the abduction of children, this aspect of Putin’s barbaric war needs greater attention.

Burning Skin, Teary Eyes: Ukraine’s Troops Say Russia Is Using a Banned Toxic Gas

Ukrainian forces describe the physical effects of gas they say Moscow’s troops are using to oust them from their positions

The Journal included photos from the battlefield – I include a cartoon of the diabolical Putin.

By Jane Lytvynenko

Updated May 23, 2024 12:04 am ET

KYIV, Ukraine—The Ukrainian soldiers were hunkered down last month in a front-line dugout and under siege from Russian drones dropping grenades. They were relieved at first when bomblets landed that didn’t explode. Then a strong smell of chlorine filled the air: The grenades were seeping poisonous gas.

The Ukrainians felt their skin sting, eyes water and lungs fill with smoke, provoking a hard cough. They rushed to wet rags with water and place them over their faces as the heavy gas filled the air around them. One of the fighters left the protection of the dugout to distract the enemy drones, allowing his compatriots to escape.

Oleksiy Bozhko, a volunteer medic whose team examined the men near the eastern city of Avdiivka, identified the gas as chloropicrin, a banned chemical irritant, based on the men’s symptoms and description of the smell. U.S. and Ukrainian officials, as well as medics, soldiers and international researchers say Russian use of toxic gases on the battlefield is increasing as Moscow ramps up an offensive designed to seize more of Ukraine’s territory than the roughly 20% it already occupies. [American officials know – this criminality needs to be told to the American public and recalcitrant Members of Congress should be confronted with the facts.  RAM]

“This weapon cripples and kills, it’s indiscriminate,” said Bozhko.

After Ukraine repelled initial Russian attacks in 2022, the war has morphed into a grind where each side is looking for an advantage against hardened defensive lines. Seeing an opportunity in Ukraine’s shortage of weapons and reserve forces, Russia has been pressing forward on several fronts, using guided aerial bombs to smash up Ukrainian positions. Toxic gases can impair Ukrainian troops’ ability to defend entrenched positions, even forcing them to withdraw.

The U.S. announced sanctions earlier this month against Russian companies and government bodies involved in the creation and supply of chemical weapons used at the front, singling out chloropicrin. The chemical agent, sometimes used in pesticides, was weaponized during World War I and is banned for use in battle by the Chemical Weapons Convention, of which Russia is a signatory. [Sanctions are good but of limited impact and Russia’s signature is meaningless. RAM]

“We assessed Russian forces used the chemical weapon chloropicrin and riot control agents as a method of warfare to dislodge Ukrainian forces from fortified positions,” Robert Wood, a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on Monday. “The use of such chemicals is not an isolated incident.” [Mentioning this at the United Nations is appropriate but the American public needs to know!  The headline in The Wall Street Journal’s print edition – “Toxic Gas Ravages Ukraine Battlefields” – should be broadcast over and over by government officials and by every media outlet. I write more below this article.  RAM]

After the U.S. sanctions announcement, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov called accusations that troops used gases “baseless,” saying, “Russia has been and remains committed to its obligations under international law in this area.” The Kremlin and the Russian Defense Ministry didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. [Can you believe that?  A Russian official’s lips are moving therefore he is lying.  RAM]

Dan Kaszeta, an expert on chemical weapons and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, said chloropicrin is toxic to humans and animals, but also acts as an irritant.

Depending on the level of exposure, the gas can burn skin, irritate tear ducts and make it difficult to breathe, let alone defend against incoming attacks. Kaszeta said the chemical has been surpassed by more modern agents sometimes used by riot police as tear gas, known as CN and CS, which are also banned by the convention.

According to Capt. Dmytro Serhiyenko, assistant to the commander of the Analytical Center of the Ukrainian Army’s Support Forces, which analyzes chemical weapon use at the front, all three of those agents are used by Russians on the battlefield. Although his team has mostly logged uses of CN and CS in the area they track, they also found two grenades containing chloropicrin at abandoned Russian positions.

Ukrainians have been tracking the use of chemical weapons at the front since February 2023, and the number of confirmed incidents have steadily increased. As of May 3, the Support Forces have confirmed 1,891 such attacks since they began tracking data, 444 of them in April, an increase of 71 confirmed incidents from the month prior. These numbers are an incomplete picture, as it often isn’t possible to get to the location where a gas was used to collect a sample or interview soldiers because of the intensity of the fighting.

“Currently, the use of poisonous chemical substances by Russians is our everyday reality,” Serhiyenko said. “You never know when you’ll encounter a cloud of poisonous chemicals.”

Lt. Vitaliy Katrych, a military medic working at a stabilization point near the front, said there have been times when every second patient he treated had been exposed to a poisonous gas. Once Russians receive a shipment, he says, they use it all the time until they have run out.

Katrych recently had to treat soldiers who were exposed to the gas for a week. The Russians dropped the poisonous substance on a dugout, then attacked the entrance itself, sealing the fighters in. It took them seven days to dig themselves out. Katrych said they ran so low on oxygen that lighters wouldn’t work.

Because CS, CN and chloropicrin are all chlorine based, they are heavier than air and settle close to the ground. If the gas enters a trench or a dugout, a simple gust of wind won’t disseminate it. Even when the gas settles, it can be kicked up from the ground, mixing with sand and creating a constant problem, especially if the soldier doesn’t bring a gas mask, forgoing it in favor of other necessary equipment.

Russians began using chemical attacks systematically in early 2023, said Kateryna Stepanenko, Russia analyst at Institute for the Study of War who has been tracking the tactic. Medics said they saw the effects of gases used during battles for the eastern cities of Bakhmut and Vuhledar that winter. It was a time when Russians were trying different strategies in the battlefield to see what stuck, said Stepanenko, including using explosive drones and deploying irregular forces such as Wagner paramilitaries.

Russia has been accused by the West of using chemical weapons several times in recent years, including to poison a Russian ex-spy on U.K. soil. In Ukraine, Russia’s 810th Brigade posted about using gas-carrying grenades on its Telegram channel last December.

“The tactic of dropping K-51 grenades from drones onto enemy positions was successfully tested and applied in order to smoke them out from fortified positions, followed by exposure to combined weapons,” read part of the message, which referred to gas-carrying grenades, and was later deleted. Alongside it, Russians posted a video appearing to show a gas grenade dropped from a drone hovering above Ukrainian positions.

Stanislav Horozheyev, a combat medic with the 12th Special Purpose Brigade Azov, said he and others were exposed to such a tactic in August last year during a rotation in a front-line trench. The rotation was meant to be done in secret, but Russians found out and bombed the positions. Then, they fired a mortar shell with the gas. Horozheyev said they got lucky because the mortar didn’t land directly in their dugout, but they still felt the effect: trouble breathing, burning skin, teary eyes.

“When you’re in that position, you feel like you’re a cornered bug, and you’re just being smoked out,” he said.

Once the gas was deployed, well-equipped Russian infantry stormed their positions. Horozheyev had a gas mask on him, but some of his fellow soldiers didn’t, and began panicking when they had difficulty breathing. The gas mask, he said, makes it difficult to aim weapons, making defense that much more challenging. In the end, Horozheyev said the fighters hung on to their positions.

Nikita Nikolaienko contributed to this article.

In the introduction and in my parenthetical comments I continue to press for our government to make Ukraine’s defeat of Putin a priority and that includes making sure the public knows what is happening and what is at stake.  Veterans of politics inside the Beltway know what an Administration’s pursuit of a priority looks like and through three Administrations we have not seen our government making this war a priority.

When we see multiple Presidential speeches, continuous Cabinet-level speeches and briefings, all out Administration officials talking about the war and the Russian evil on talk shows and Sunday interviews, and the congressional liaison teams from the White House, Defense, and State swarming the Hill, we will know the Administration intends to make certain Ukraine defeats Putin.

When we see the barbarism of the genocide of Ukraine’s children, the flagrant use of poison gases, and the indiscriminate murders of civilians graphically presented to the American public, we will know the Administration wants the public to know what is happening and why we must support Ukraine to victory.

For over two years, the Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN) has been calling for an unequivocal statement of the United States' policy of support for a Ukrainian victory and Putin’s defeat. Indications might suggest we are getting close, but we are still waiting.

As I have written and former Senator Rob Portman’s piece earlier this month reported, the recently enacted supplemental appropriations bill included Section 504 mandating “a classified independent assessment from the Commander, U.S. European Command, describing any specific defense articles and services not yet provided to Ukraine that would result in meaningful battlefield gains” within 45 days.

So, by June 8th, that assessment should be before Congress and a basis for an unequivocal statement of United States policy and what can and will be done to effectuate that policy.

Putin will not stop until he is stopped – evil must be defeated.

Co-Founder, U.S.-Ukraine Foundation
Director of External Affairs, Friends of Ukraine Network
This introduction and parenthetical comments and the closing are Mr. McConnell’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation or the Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN).