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What in the World?

We can stop worrying about Russia using chemical warfare

Nov 09, 2022

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The U.S. has been worried for months that Russia was considering using chemical weapons in the ongoing Ukraine War. G7 leaders warned of severe consequences if that happened, and exports of the drug fentanyl to Russia have been scaled back due to fears it would be weaponized by Putin’s military. Despite those concerns, Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan says we can stop worrying about Russia using chemical warfare because it’s too hard and too expensive.

Excerpted from Peter’s Nov. 9 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

For my fellow backpackers, you know what day 4 of a trip means…fresh socks! So a discussion of chemical and biological warfare seems fitting.As the superpowers discovered during the Cold War, chemical warfare is hard, expensive and only makes sense in a few scenarios (my socks being one of them). Biological warfare isn’t much different, except it’s harder, more expensive and makes sense in even fewer scenarios (my socks still topping that list).Despite all the conversation and concern, there’s not much to worry about. Delivering these chemicals or bugs isn’t going to happen at scale and unless you’re on a very specific hit-list…you can probably direct your worries towards something else.

It’s not so much the chemistry, it’s the delivery and dispersion. Because if it takes like a 100th of a gram of something to kill you, and you can put a few kilos into an artillery shell…but then you have to deal with simple atmospherics. And as they used to say in the 1980s, the solution to pollution is dilution. 

And so you really need, if you want high casualty counts with chemical weapons, to disperse it in an area that is contained like a building. And all of a sudden you’re talking about a multibillion, really multi-hundred billion dollar project to kill what is in essence just a few 100 people – and if someone is smart enough to turn off the AC system, not even that. So it’s no surprise to me that conventions on chemical weapons actually passed and were adopted, were being implemented during the Cold War. Because they’re just not very effective at a battlefield weapon or even as a mass casualty weapon. There is a little wind here. I’m using my fancy microphone, and if that’s a problem, you can just skip to the next video, which will be even windier. 

Anyhoo, that is chemical. Let’s talk biological. In many ways, everything that is difficult about chemical is also true for biological, it is very, very expensive to do and delivering the bug is very, very difficult. Because it’s not like most pathogens can just be released in the air and then they’ll do their thing and kill a lot of people. Excuse me, high elevation is going to my head. It’s…the bugs themselves are incredibly, incredibly non-viable in most environments. So now you’re talking tailored bugs for specific climates and elevations. And so the cost just keeps going up.  And then of course, you still have the same delivery and dispersion problem that you have with chemicals. So as a rule biologicals, cost more and achieve less. 

Everyone, Peter Zeihan here coming to you from just below is Isberg Pass on the border between the Ansel Adams Wilderness and Yosemite National Park. I’m on the Yosemite side. Back behind me…that is the head of what used to be the Merced Glacier. I’ve always liked this part of the park because it has some fascinating geology and almost no one comes here. Isberg is the least visited of the major passes.

 Anywhoo, today is day four of my backpacking trip. And all of those of you who backpack semi-regularly know what day four means – it means fresh socks. And so on that topic, I thought today would be a great time to talk about chemical and biological warfare. Now, despite all of the concerns that we have had for the last several decades about weapons of mass destruction getting in the wrong hands, 

I don’t mean to suggest that it’s a non concern, but it’s a relatively low concern. As the superpowers both discovered during the Cold War, chemical weapons are hard. It’s not so much the chemistry, it’s the delivery and dispersion. Because if it takes like a 100th of a gram of something to kill you, and you can put a few kilos into an artillery shell…but then you have to deal with simple atmospherics. And as they used to say in the 1980s, the solution to pollution is dilution. 

And so you really need, if you want high casualty counts with chemical weapons, to disperse it in an area that is contained like a building. And all of a sudden you’re talking about a multibillion, really multi-hundred billion dollar project to kill what is in essence just a few 100 people – and if someone is smart enough to turn off the AC system, not even that. So it’s no surprise to me that conventions on chemical weapons actually passed and were adopted, were being implemented during the Cold War. Because they’re just not very effective at a battlefield weapon or even as a mass casualty weapon. There is a little wind here. I’m using my fancy microphone, and if that’s a problem, you can just skip to the next video, which will be even windier. 

Anyhoo, that is chemical. Let’s talk biological. In many ways, everything that is difficult about chemical is also true for biological, it is very, very expensive to do and delivering the bug is very, very difficult. Because it’s not like most pathogens can just be released in the air and then they’ll do their thing and kill a lot of people. Excuse me, high elevation is going to my head. It’s…the bugs themselves are incredibly, incredibly non-viable in most environments. So now you’re talking tailored bugs for specific climates and elevations. And so the cost just keeps going up.  And then of course, you still have the same delivery and dispersion problem that you have with chemicals. So as a rule biologicals cost more and achieve less. 

Now, there are a couple of exceptions to these general rules, and really comes down to fear and terror attacks. If a terror group were able to get a hold of some of this stuff, they don’t really care what the economics of it are, because they’re not the ones who developed it. They…it would be a use it and lose it. But again, you’re talking about very, very low case counts and even lower casualty counts. The one possible exception is when you have a certain former superpower who likes to use chemical and biological agents as a assassination weapon. And there’s really nothing we can do about that. 

Now we’re talking single digit number of people that the Russians have killed that way. So should you be concerned. You probably should reserve your caution for something that has a lot more likelihood of happening, like being killed by a vending machine. Okay, that’s it from me. Tomorrow is day five. Day five is a very exciting day for backpackers because that’s the day we get new underwear. No, we don’t. Until next time.

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