Chemical weapons a threat to defeat the Mariupol resistance fighters?

The Ukrainian city of Mariupol is on the verge of falling into the hands of the Russians, after a brutal siege that lasted more than 40 days. Recent accusations of a chemical attack have raised concerns in the city coveted by the Kremlin.

After more than 40 days of defending the besieged city of Mariupol, the 36th Marine Brigade of the Ukrainian Army posted a shocking message on Facebook on Monday, April 11. “Today will likely be the last battle as ammunition runs out,” she wrote. “Some [d’entre nous] They will die, others will be captured. I beg you, remember the Marines.”

On Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the surrender of more than 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers to Russian forces in this coastal city in southeastern Ukraine. For his part, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said that he had no information on this matter.

For the past six weeks, Russian forces have worked to encircle and strangle Mariupol. Humanitarian corridors are closed. Civilians were attacked. Schools and hospitals were bombed. Satellite images show a once thriving city reduced to rubble.

According to the mayor of Mariupol, Vadim Boychenko, 90% of the infrastructure of Mariupol has been destroyed and the death toll may exceed 20,000. On April 11, he said bodies were “strewn in the streets.”

On the same day, a new threat appeared. The Azov Regiment, a nationalist battalion of the Ukrainian army, said that a Russian drone had dropped a “toxic substance” on soldiers and civilians in Mariupol, causing respiratory failure and neurological problems. “The threat of chemical weapons is real, says Katarzina Zysk, a Russian expert on military strategy, in an interview with France 24. The civilian population and the government have good reasons to be very afraid of it.”

Avoid “unbearable humiliation”

The use of chemical weapons was banned by the international community after World War I. A ban reinforced by agreements signed in 1972 and 1993 that prohibit its development, storage or transfer.

Therefore, Russia’s use of chemical weapons in Ukraine would be a war crime, yet it might be willing to commit it. “Russia is losing this war, this humiliation is intolerable and unacceptable to the Russian authorities,” continues Katharzina Zisk. “Chemical weapons will tactically help win battles, but they also put psychological pressure on the Ukrainian government to stop resisting and force it to accept Russia’s terms for ending the conflict.”

The use of a chemical arsenal could also lead to a quick end to the conflict in Mariupol. Contacted by France 24, says Mark Michael Blum, a chemical weapons expert and former laboratory director from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

An open and large-scale chemical attack would provoke further anger from the international community, already hostile to Russia. But it would be difficult to prove a small-scale targeted attack, especially in an inaccessible and isolated area like Mariupol.

Mark Michael Bloom asserts: “In this city we have a small enclave of Ukrainian resistance cut off from the world.” According to him, there is “no chance” that people affected by a chemical attack will go to a hospital where samples can be taken. The expert adds: “They are more likely to be captured or killed by the Russians. So there are reasons to believe that Russia is able to conceal the use of chemical weapons, because no one can prove that this actually happened.” However, Mark Michael Blum is skeptical about the chemical attack reported by the Azov regiment.

lack of evidence

For his part, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said, on Wednesday, that it was not possible to reach final conclusions about the possible use of chemical weapons by Russian forces in Mariupol, noting that it was not possible to conduct a real investigation in a besieged coastal city.

Indeed, proving that a chemical attack took place is a long and complex process, similar to other war crimes. Samples should be taken and analyzed immediately, at the same time as testimonials, videos, photos and other documents. Mark Michael Bloom reveals, “Once you have evidence of a chemical weapon being used, you can go further and ask yourself which party used it. But the attribution step is more difficult.” “How much reliable information is really [en provenance de Marioupol] It is still very limited.

The fact that Russia does not officially possess chemical weapons complicates matters further. Moscow signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, and entered into force in 1997, which prohibits signatories from stockpiling, developing or using chemical weapons. On September 27, 2017, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons verified the complete removal of Russia’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles.

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

Russia is also suspected of involvement in larger chemical attacks in Syria and Chechnya, but these suspicions cannot be substantiated. Mark Michael Blum explains: “We lack reliable information that Russia still has large stockpiles, that is, tons of chemical warfare agents. But is this a possibility? Great country and authorities have a habit of trying to cheat by circumventing the agreements they signed.”

Reasonable denial and doubt

For its part, Moscow asserts that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was orchestrated by Western intelligence services or that it was the work of opposition forces. If Russian forces were to use chemical weapons in Ukraine, Katarzyna Zysk expects similar allegations. She said: “A few weeks ago the Russian discourse appeared about the so-called ‘Biolabs’ in Ukraine, which basically means that if a chemical attack occurred, it could be Ukrainians. The concept of ‘reasonable denial’ makes it possible to deny any direct intervention and maintain ambiguity about chain of command in order to be free from all responsibility.

Even before the invasion of Ukraine began, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in December that US military suppliers were bringing to Ukraine tanks “full of unidentified chemical components” in order to “provoke” Russia. On March 9, Washington warned that Russia could use chemical weapons in Ukraine and attribute their use to the United States in order to justify its invasion of the country. Mark Michael Bloom adds: “In the case of Mariupol, we can also observe the situation in which the other camp finds itself. Ukraine is in a desperate situation, so the Ukrainian parties have an interest in calculating a chemical attack that never happened. It happened?

The Azov Regiment, which reported the attack in Mariupol, is deeply anti-Russian and was originally a paramilitary militia with neo-Nazi leanings formed to fight pro-Russian forces in the Donbass since 2014. However, its announcement of a chemical attack prompted a swift response from the British government. “If chemical weapons are used, then President Putin should know that all possible options are on the table as to how the West will respond,” said British Armed Forces Minister James Hebe.

Volodymyr Zelensky also took the opportunity on Wednesday to urge Western leaders to “act now” to prevent a future chemical attack from Russia. The US response was more subtle. As Joe Biden has accused the Russian president of committing “genocide” in Ukraine, the White House says allegations of chemical weapons use have not been verified – though it has expressed concern that Vladimir Putin could drown.

This could be the fate of other cities.

Tales of destruction dominated the news of Mariupol for six weeks. Ukraine has accused Russia of causing a humanitarian crisis in the city by blocking corridors that would have allowed essential supplies and medical aid to enter or its residents to escape. Those who managed to escape described the scenes as “worse than in a horror movie”.

Whether or not chemical weapons are used, the threat of such an attack has been looming for months, raising fear among the Ukrainian population. “There is a strong psychological component, Katarzyna Zisek believes. The threat of chemical weapons is very frightening.”

Creating fear of a chemical attack, even without benefiting from it, may be the last resort for Russian forces to try to demoralize civilians and troops in Mariupol and the rest of Ukraine. On the other hand, such an attack would be a way for the Russian army to spread more fear and quickly “clean up” the city. By doing so, it will win an important victory in the eyes of Vladimir Putin and will position itself as a strategic position that will allow it to prevent Ukrainian access to the Sea of ​​Azov.

Both options appear to serve the interests of the Kremlin. The only certainty seems to be that Mariupol will soon fall, and the extent of the devastation sends a clear message in this sense. Mariupol is a warning to the Ukrainian authorities, concludes Katarzyna Zysk. He says: “Look at what we are doing here, it may also be the fate of other cities.”

Article adapted from English – find the original here.

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