Chemical weapons threat raises the stakes for Mariupol’s last stand

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The Ukrainian city of Mariupol is on the verge of falling to Russian forces after a brutal siege that lasted more than 40 days. Recent reports of a chemical weapons attack are raising fears in the city, but is the threat real?

After more than 40 days defending the city of Mariupol, the Ukrainian army’s 36th marine unit posted a message on Facebook on Monday. “Today will likely be the last fight as ammo is running out,” they wrote. “Some [of us] will die, some will be captured. Please remember the Marines.

For the past six weeks, Russian forces have worked to surround and suffocate the port city in southeastern Ukraine. Humanitarian corridors have been blocked. Civilians were attacked. Schools and hospitals have been bombed. Satellite images show a once-thriving city largely reduced to rubble.

Mayor Vadym Boychenko said 90% of the city’s infrastructure had been destroyed and the death toll could exceed 20,000. On April 11, he said corpses were “lying in the streets”.

On the same day, a new threat appeared. Ukraine’s Azov Battalion reported that a Russian drone dropped a “toxic substance” on soldiers and civilians in Mariupol, causing respiratory failure and neurological problems.

“The threat of chemical weapons is real,” Russian military strategy expert Katarzyna Zysk told FRANCE 24. “The civilian population and the government have good reason to be very afraid of it.”

>> Ukrainian forces ready for last battle in Mariupol

Avoid “unbearable humiliation”

The use of chemical weapons was prohibited by the international community after World War I, with strengthened agreements in 1972 and 1993 to prohibit their development, storage or transfer.

Therefore, Russia’s use of chemical weapons in Ukraine would be a war crime, but one it might be willing to commit. “Russia is losing this war and the humiliation is unbearable and unacceptable to the Russian authorities,” Zysk said. “Chemical weapons would tactically help win battles but also put psychological pressure on the Ukrainian government to stop the resistance and accept Russia’s terms to end the conflict.”

Chemical weapons could also provide a quick end to the conflict in Mariupol. “It makes military sense at the moment for Russia to clear Mariupol as quickly as possible, as it would free up a lot of forces for their planned offensive in the Donetsk region,” said a chemical weapons expert and former head of the Organization for prohibition of chemicals. armament laboratory (OPCW), Marc-Michael Blum, told FRANCE 24.

A blatant large-scale chemical attack would risk outrage in the international community, already hostile to Russia. But a smaller targeted attack would be much harder to prove, especially in an area inaccessible to the outside world, like Mariupol.

“In Mariupol we have a small pocket of Ukrainian resistance, which is isolated,” Blum said. “There is no chance that people affected by a chemical attack will go to the hospital where samples can be taken. They are more likely to be captured or killed by the Russians. So there’s reason to believe that Russia can cover up the use of chemical weapons, because you can’t prove it happened.

A lack of evidence

However, Blum is skeptical of the Azov Battalion’s reported chemical attack in Mariupol. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also sounded cautious in a televised speech on April 11, saying only that Russian forces “could” start using chemical weapons in the city.

Indeed, proving that a chemical attack took place is a long and complicated process, similar to proving other war crimes. On-site samples should be collected and analyzed, along with testimonials, videos, photographs and other documentation.

“Once you have this proof that a chemical weapon was used, only then can you go further and say, well, who used it? But attribution is even more difficult,” Blum said. “The amount of truly credible information [from Mariupol] is still very limited.

Complicating matters further is the fact that Russia officially does not have chemical weapons. It signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993 which entered into force in 1997, prohibiting signatories from stockpiling, developing or using chemical weapons.

On September 27, 2017, the OPCW verified the complete elimination of Russia’s declared stockpiles of chemical weapons.

Since then, small-scale chemical attacks have been attributed to Russia due to evidence of the Russian nerve agent Novichok. These include the 2020 attack on Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the 2018 attack on former Russian military officer and British intelligence agency double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter , Yulia Skripal.

Russian involvement in large-scale chemical attacks in Syria and Chechnya is widely suspected, but unproven. “We lack real credible information that Russia still has large stockpiles, i.e. tons of chemical warfare agents,” Blum said.

“But is that a possibility? It’s a big country and it has a habit of trying to cheat such conventions.

“Plausible deniability and doubt”

Russia maintains that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was staged by Western intelligence or by opposition forces – accusations that are difficult to refute. If Russia were to use chemical weapons in Ukraine, Zysk expects it to make similar statements.

“A few weeks ago this Russian government story came out about biolabs in Ukraine, basically trying to say that if a chemical attack happens, it could be the Ukrainians themselves,” she said. . “It creates plausible deniability and doubt.”

Even before the start of the war, a contradictory narrative started to emerge. As early as December 2021, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that US military contractors were smuggling tanks “filled with unidentified chemical components” into Ukraine as a “provocation” towards Russia.

On March 9, 2022, the war was underway and the United States was warning that Russia might use chemical weapons in Ukraine, but attributing them to Washington as a “false flag” to justify an invasion.

In Mariupol, “of course you can also watch it from the other side,” Blum said. “Ukraine is understandably desperate, so is there any interest for the Ukrainians in declaring a chemical weapons attack that never happened?”

The report of an attack on Monday prompted a swift response from the British government. If the claims turn out to be true, “all options were on the table for what the answer might be,” said British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey.

“This could be the fate of other cities”

For six weeks, news from Mariupol was dominated by stories of sheer destruction.

Ukraine has accused Russia of causing a humanitarian crisis in the city by blocking corridors that would allow essential supplies and medical aid to enter or citizens to flee. Those who managed to escape described scenes “worse than a horror movie”.

Whether or not chemical weapons have been or will be used, the threat of an attack has been looming for months, stoking fears in an already dire situation. “There’s a strong psychological element to it,” Zysk said. “The threat of chemical weapons is very frightening.”

Raising fears of a chemical attack, even without the attack itself, could be one last way for Russian forces to try to break morale in Mariupol and Ukraine. On the other hand, carrying out an attack would be a way for Russian forces to further instill fear and quickly clear the city. In the process, they would secure an important victory for Putin and a strategic position, blocking Ukraine’s access to the Sea of ​​Azov.

Either option seems advantageous for Russia. The only certainty seems to be that Mariupol will soon fall, and the excessive destruction of the city sends a clear message. “Mariupol is a warning to Ukrainian authorities,” Zysk said. “That is to say, look at what we are doing here. This could also be the fate of other cities.

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