Ukraine investigated a claim that a poisonous substance was dropped on besieged Mariupol, as Western officials warned Tuesday that any use of chemical weapons by Russia would be a serious escalation of the already devastating war.
Thwarted in his apparent ambition to overrun the Ukrainian capital, Russian President Vladimir Putin is now building up forces for a new offensive in the eastern Donbas region, and insisted Tuesday that his campaign would achieve its goals. He said Russia “had no other choice” but to launch what he calls a “special military operation,” saying it was to protect civilians in the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbas.
As Ukrainian forces brace for a new attack, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said it was possible phosphorus munitions had been used in Mariupol, which lies in the Donbas and has been razed in six weeks of pummeling by Russian troops. The mayor said the siege has left more than 10,000 civilians dead, their corpses “carpeted through the streets.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday night that Russian forces could use chemical weapons in the city, echoing similar, repeated warnings by Western officials. And leaders inside and outside of the country said they were urgently investigating the unconfirmed claim by a Ukrainian regiment that a poisonous substance was dropped on fighters in Mariupol.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said use of chemical weapons “would be a callous escalation in this conflict,” while Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said it would be a “wholesale breach of international law.”
In the face of stiff resistance by Ukrainian forces bolstered by Western weapons, Russian forces have increasingly relied on bombarding cities, flattening many urban areas and leaving thousands of people dead. In other areas, they have pulled back to regroup.
Their retreat from cities and towns around the capital, Kyiv, led to the discovery of large numbers of apparently massacred civilians, prompting widespread condemnation and accusations that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine.
The war has also driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes – including nearly two-thirds of all children.
Still, there are fears of even wider carnage to come, amid signs the Russian military is gearing up for a major offensive in the Donbas. A senior U.S. defense official on Monday described a long Russian convoy rolling toward the eastern city of Izyum with artillery, aviation and infantry support.
The Donbas has been torn by fighting between Russian-allied separatists and Ukrainian forces since 2014, and Russia has recognized the separatists’ claims of independence. Military strategists say Russian leaders appear to hope local support, logistics and terrain in the region favor Russia’s larger and better-armed military, potentially allowing its troops to finally turn the tide decisively in their favor.
Describing a battle happening around a steel mill in Mariupol, a Russia-allied separatist official appeared to urge the use of chemical weapons Monday, telling Russian state TV that separatist forces should seize the plant from Ukrainian forces by first blocking all the exits. “And then we’ll use chemical troops to smoke them out of there,” he said.
But Eduard Basurin was quoted by the Interfax news agency on Tuesday as saying that the separatist forces “haven’t used any chemical weapons in Mariupol.”
It was the Ukrainian regiment defending the plant that claimed a drone had dropped a poisonous substance on the city. It indicated there were no serious injuries. The assertion by the Azov Regiment, a far-right group now part of the Ukrainian military, could not be independently verified.
Truss said the U.K. was “working urgently” to investigate the report, while Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that the U.S. could not confirm the drone report out of Mariupol.
But Kirby noted the administration’s persistent concerns “about Russia’s potential to use a variety of riot control agents, including tear gas mixed with chemical agents, in Ukraine.” Britain, meanwhile, has warned that Russia may use phosphorus bombs – which cause horrendous burns and whose use in civilian areas is banned under international law – in Mariupol.
That city has already seen some of the heaviest attacks and civilian suffering in the war, but the land, sea and air assaults by Russian forces fighting to capture it have increasingly limited information about what’s happening inside the city.
Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press writer Robert Burns in Washington, and AP journalists around the world contributed to this report.
Yuras Karmanau & Adam Schreck/The Associated Press