Wednesday, September 28

Did Russia really use chemical weapons in Ukraine? Experts remain skeptical | Ukraine

An initial report circulating on Monday night from Ukraine said Russian forces had used “a poisonous substance of unknown origin” against Ukrainian civilians and military holed up in the besieged city of Mariupol.

The victims were described as having “respiratory failure” and a rather specific diagnosis of “vestibulo-atactic syndrome,” nominally inner ear problems leading to dizziness and perhaps vomiting, eye twitching and loss of balance.

There was immediate speculation that the events described were a chemical weapons attack. Liz Truss, the British foreign secretary, said the UK was urgently investigating while a Pentagon spokesperson said the reports “if true, are deeply concerning”.

But some observers have expressed skepticism that the available evidence points towards a chemical weapons attack.

What information has emerged?

A video from the Azov battalion, a Ukrainian nationalist group linked to the far right, was released on Tuesday on Telegram and provided a fuller account. It describes events and films some of the victims, who do not appear seriously harmed.

The first, a middle-aged man, describes seeing “a white smoke” coming from the factory, most likely the vast Azovstal steel factory in the east of the city and one of two locations where Ukrainian forces are holding out. The smoke or fog, he said later, had “a sweet taste.”

The man said he “at once got sick” and that he had suffered from tinnitus, tachycardia (a fast heartbeat) and that he had fallen over. “Mother lost consciousness and was three times she was reanimated,” the man added. An older woman, filmed immediately afterwards in a makeshift bed, complained she was still unable to walk.

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A third victim, lying prone with clearly inflamed eyes, also described a “fog more like a smoke” after an explosion. “It was very difficult to breathe,” he said, and reported feeling dizzy, that his legs were “a kind of cotton.”

A military commander concluded that “toxic substances” or “potent toxic substances of suffocating action were used” – but acknowledged it was not possible to engage in a toxicological analysis because the Ukrainians were in living in siege conditions.

So was it a chemical weapon attack?

It is too soon to say definitively what happened. One Chemical Weapons Expert, Dan Kaszetathe author of a history of nerve agents, cautioned that remote diagnosis was always difficult and questioned why, in the initial report, such a specific medical phrase as vestibulo-atactic syndrome had been used.

It remained unclear whether chemicals, let alone chemical weapons, had been used on the evidence initially available, Kaszeta said, adding that on the site under attack there was “lots of scope … for conventional or incendiary weapons to cause chemical problems because of fires and explosions”.

Eliot Higgins, the founder of the Bellingcat investigative journalism agency, said the symptoms described in the video were “inconsistent with any nerve agent I’m familiar with, with no reports of pupil constriction or dilation, seizures”.

However, it was critical for Ukrainian forces to try to recover any munitions used – the original report said the gas had been dropped by a drone – which may be possible because chemical weapons shells are designed to release their contents rather than explode.

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What are politicians saying? What’s next?

Investigations at the UK Ministry of Defense are continuing, said James Heappey, the armed forces minister, on a morning half round, before going on to say “all options are on the table” in terms of a Nato response, if it were determined that a chemical agent had been used.

Joe Biden did warn after the Nato summit last month that the west would respond to any Russian use of chemical weapons in Ukraine with “the nature of the response depending on the nature of the use”.

But the effect of the incident – ​​with three victims filmed – appears limited, and it is hard to see it provoking a significant military response at this stage. And with Mariupol surrounded by Russian forces and inaccessible to outsiders there is no prospect of an independent investigation of any of the victims.

Fresh information could swiftly alter the picture, but for the moment Monday’s incident may not be as consequential as it was initially feared to have been.

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