The evidence for Russia’s use of chemical weapons in Ukraine

UK working ‘urgently’ to confirm reports Moscow deployed ‘poisonous substance’

The aftermath of Russian shelling in the city of Mariupol
The aftermath of Russian shelling in the city of Mariupol
(Image credit: Leon Klein/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The UK and US are investigating unconfirmed reports that Russia used chemical weapons during its assault on the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.

The Azov Battalion, a far-right Ukranian militia group, claimed three soldiers were injured by a “poisonous substance” during an attack earlier this week, prompting Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to say officials were working “urgently” to substantiate what, if true, would be a “callous escalation” in force.

The Pentagon described the allegation that Moscow has deployed non-conventional weapons as “deeply concerning”. Western nations have repeatedly said that any use of chemical or biological weapons will be met with “firm action”, the BBC reported.

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‘Riot control agents’

The three Azov troops have shown “clear signs of chemical poisoning”, the Kyiv Independent reported, citing the controversial battalion’s leader Andriy Biletsky. He added that there appears to be no “disastrous consequences” for their health.

The allegation “followed a call by Russia’s proxies in the Donbas to use chemical weapons against Azov”, the news site added. Azov’s witness claimed the substance was “distributed by a drone” and left victims suffering from a “shortness of breath”.

In a late-night address, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not confirm the use of chemical or biological weapons, but said: “We treat this with the utmost seriousness.

“I would like to remind world leaders that the possible use of chemical weapons by the Russian military has already been discussed,” he added. “And already at that time it meant that it was necessary to react to the Russian aggression much harsher and faster.”

Russia has previously claimed, without evidence, that Ukraine was planning to deploy chemical weapons in order to repel its invasion. The intervention in late March prompted Joe Biden to warn of a possible “false flag” attack to justify the use of banned weapons.

Warning that Putin’s back is “against the wall”, the US president said claims by the Kremlin that Ukraine has access to non-conventional weapons was “a clear sign” he was planning to deploy his own, adding: “He’s already used chemical weapons in the past.”

UK Armed Forces Minister James Heappey told Sky News that “all options were on the table” if it is confirmed that Russia has already used chemical weapons. “The fact that they are part of the discussion is deeply sobering,” he added.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the US would monitor the situation. “These reports, if true, are deeply concerning and reflective of concerns that we have had about Russia’s potential to use a variety of riot control agents, including tear gas mixed with chemical agents, in Ukraine,” he said.

Repeat performance

After Biden’s warning over the use of chemical weapons, Andy Weber, Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of defence responsible for nuclear, chemical and biological programmes, told The Telegraph that “despite Putin’s reckless bluster on nuclear weapons, the use of biological weapons in Ukraine is much more likely.

“The USSR had the largest biological weapons programme the world has ever known and parts of it have continued uninterrupted since the break-up of the Soviet Union,” he said. “Russia has three military biological facilities that have never, to our knowledge, been visited by non-Russians. We don’t fully know what they're up to.”

Russia also cut a lone voice in 2018 when it claimed that a chemical attack on the Syrian city of Douma was “staged” with the help of the UK.

Activists, rescue workers and medics said more than 40 people were killed following the deployment of “various chlorinated organic chemicals”, the BBC reported at the time. Bashar al-Assad’s government denied the attack, despite the Syrian Civil Defence and the Syrian American Medical Society claiming that more than 500 patients had been admitted to hospitals with “symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent”.

Five years earlier, “rockets containing the nerve agent sarin hit the Ghouta suburb of Syria’s capital” in “the deadliest chemical weapon attack since the Iran-Iraq war”, The Telegraph reported. “Between 281 and 1,729 men, women and children died before dawn broke over Damascus,” the paper said. Assad’s government again denied the attack.

At the time, Putin wrote in The New York Times that “there is every reason to believe [poison gas] was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces”.

“Novichok, biological agents, chlorine and radiation poison” are all thought to be “part of Russia’s arsenal”, The Telegraph reported. Chlorine is considered the most “likely chemical agent for Russia to use in the Ukraine war” given that Moscow has watched al-Assad “use chlorine repeatedly against civilians in rebel-held areas, as well as run misinformation campaigns to obscure his culpability”.

Chlorine is also “easily manufactured from readily obtainable precursors without sophisticated laboratory equipment” and can be “dispersed by relatively crude munitions to cause death and widespread panic in built-up areas”, the paper added.

What next?

Whether the West steps up its response “obviously depends on how that verification process goes”, said Politico’s Alex Wickham. “If confirmed, this would be the first known use of chemical weapons by Russia in the Ukraine war”, he added, “and would mark a significant escalation of Moscow’s aggression”.

Armed forces minister Heappey told Sky News that the government would “maintain some ambiguity” as to the response to a confirmed chemical attack. The broadcaster added that he “signalled” the response would “vary depending upon the severity of the use”.

This echoed comments by Biden in late March when he told reporters in Brussels that the use of chemical weapons “would trigger a response in kind”, adding: “We would respond if he uses it. The nature of the response would depend on the nature of the use.”

It is “too soon to say definitively what happened”, The Guardian reported, and some chemical weapons experts are “sceptical” about the Azov Battalion’s claims.

Dan Kaszeta, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, tweeted that “it is legitimately difficult to assess these situations remotely, particularly when we largely have second-hand or third-hand reports rather than actual evidence from the scene”.

“We have a handful of sick, but not dead, Ukrainian soldiers,” he added. “They’ve had difficulty breathing and ataxis. This does not tell us much. People leaping onto nerve agent diagnosis from this presentation of signs and symptoms are way off.”

He also cautioned that in the area under attack there is “lots of scope” for “conventional or incendiary weapons to cause chemical problems because of fires and explosions”.

Eliot Higgins, founder of the Bellingcat investigative journalism agency, added in a tweet that the symptoms described by troops on the ground are “inconsistent with any nerve agent I’m familiar with, with no reports of pupil constriction or dilation, convulsions”.

“If the site is still accessible then they should be able to go back there and find the munition remains”, he added, describing this as “the most solid evidence they could hope to produce” of a Russian chemical attack.

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