Ukrainian officials are accusing Russian forces of having used chemical weapons on the besieged Azov Sea port city of Mariupol on April 11, causing troops and civilians alike to develop respiratory symptoms. The claim first emerged from the Azov Battalion, a unit of the Ukrainian National Guard involved in the defense of the city, which posted to its Telegram channel: “Russian occupation forces used a poisonous substance of unknown origin against Ukrainian military and civilians in the city of Mariupol, which was dropped from an enemy [unmanned aerial vehicle]. The victims have respiratory failure, vestibulo-atactic syndrome.”
The claim was shortly picked up by Kyiv government officials. “ATTENTION! Chemical weapons are used against Ukrainian defenders in #Mariupol! russia [sic] openly crosses all boundaries of humanity and openly declares it,” Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser at Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, wrote on Twitter. President Volodymyr Zelensky was somewhat more cautious, saying the claim is being taken “as seriously as possible.”
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said work is underway to verify the claim, adding: “Any use of such weapons would be a callous escalation in this conflict and we will hold [Vladimir] Putin and his regime to account.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated in March that the use of chemical weapons by Russia would be a “blatant violation of international law with far-reaching consequences.” (The Hill, The Guardian)
The following day, the Azov Battalion released a video, featuring interviews with medics, witnesses and two survivors of the attack—apparently bedridden and breathing with difficulty—who say the substance was sprayed from a drone, and that the symptoms indicate it may have been sarin gas. No deaths are reported, but at least three serious casualties claimed. (Euromaidan Press, Politico)
The fact that this report emerges from the Azov Battalion, with its notorious far-right proclivities, will doubtless provide an excuse for those predisposed in favor of Russia to dismiss the claims. However, we have noted before the ridiculous double standard, in which much is made of sneaky Ukrainian “neo-Nazis,” while the far-right paramilitaries and relentless use of deceptive propaganda on the Russian side are overlooked.
For instance… Lugubrious pro-Putin conpiracy-mongers are currently making much of white armbands supposedly found on bodies recovered from the site of the massacre at Bucha, portraying this as evidence the massacre was “staged” by the Azov Battalion. White armbands are worn by Russian-sympathetic elements of the population, these accounts tell us. Embracing a war-propaganda epithet while eschewing correct punctuation, the supposedly “progressive” (sic!) Monthly Review crows in a headline: “Proof that the Ukronazi’s [sic] staged the events”
In contrast, Ukrainian government sources assert: “Russian war criminals indeed made local civilians wear white armbands…” This is portrayed as an attempt to “confuse Ukrainian forces.” Der Spiegel also reports that Russian “occupiers…insisted that all residents wear white armbands—the same armbands that the Russian soldiers also wore. They were told that they were vital for identifying them as peaceful civilians.” The very pro-NATO DC think-tank Atlantic Council also notes these claims in a page deconstructing Russian propaganda.
We’ve noted since the Ukrainian conflict began in 2014 the use of “black propaganda” by both sides. So online propaganda partisans will believe what they will.
However, before we so readily dismiss the chemwar claims from Mariupol, we should note that on the very same day as the alleged attack, a military figure on the Russian side had explicitly threatened to use chemical weapons. Eduard Basurin, a militia leader from the Donetsk People’s Republic, one of the brutal Russian-backed sparatist enclaves in Ukraine’s east, commented to Russian media (specifically RIA-Novosti) on the possible use of chemical weapons to take Mariupol’s Azovstal Steel Plant, which was held by what he called “nationalists” (Ukrainian resistance forces, in Russian military lingo). Said Basurin: “When capturing Azovstal in Mariupol, you need to act more cunningly in order to avoid losses, because of the underground floors. It is pointless to storm the object… It is possible to accomplish. The chemical troops, I believe, will then find a means to smoke moles out of their holes.” (See coverage at The Independent and India’s Republic World)
Recalling the ritual regurgitation of “false flag” claims after every chemical attack in Syria over the past years, it certainly is tiresome to see pro-Putin partisans falling for the same propaganda trick again and again. We await the determination of bona fide human rights organizations on whether there was a chemical attack in Mariupol, but the rush to judgment by online partisans in such cases is unseemly.
And the Syria comparison is, alas, all too relevant here. The Russian general Alexander Dvornikov, dubbed “the Butcher of Syria” for his savage bombardment of Aleppo in 2015-6, has just been appointed commander of Putin’s new offensive in the east of Ukraine. As the New Zealand Herald recalls:
In the six months that Dvornikov ran Russia’s military campaign in support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, his air force conducted 9,000 bombing sorties, destroying large parts of Aleppo, Homs and other smaller towns. He is known for having helped to devise a Russian strategy to break the will of civilians living in besieged cities by deliberately targeting basic infrastructures such as bakeries, hospitals and water sources.
Which brings us to a rather critical point. Russia is clearly attempting to repeat this monstrous strategy in Ukraine. Mariupol has now been destroyed as completely as Aleppo was. An aide to Mariupol’s mayor just warned on Twitter that “advice on protection in the event of the use of chemical weapons for Mariupol is not relevant—there are almost no surviving windows or premises in the city, there is no running water and sanitation.”
The Associated Press just tweeted a video of graphic images of the ruins and casualties and mourning families in Mariupol, to lurid background music. This is clearly emotionally manipulative, but we assert that there are those for whom such manipulation would be intellectually salubrious. Immediately assuming that a particular atrocity at Mariupol or Bucha was a lie—or a “false flag” by Ukrainian forces against their own people—amid the wholesale destruction of these cities by Russia’s war machine is perverse and dishonest on its face.
Photo via Twitter
Is the Azov Battalion really ‘neo-Nazi’?
Make of of it what you will, but this is denied in a FAQ-style commentary from Euromaidan Press, who write:
Russia destroys Mariupol steel plant
The Azov Regiment reports that the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol was destroyed by Russian bombardment, and that many people are trapped under the rubble. Some 1,000 civilians had taken shelter at the complex, of whom 300 are missing, including many children. (Ukrinform)
Mariupol steel plant still holding out?
About 1,000 civilians remain trapped at a steel plant where Ukrainian forces are making their last stand in the besieged city of Mariupol, President Volodymyr Zelensky said after a Russian ultimatum to the plant’s defedners to surrender or die expired on April 20. (RTE)