Russian troops, thwarted in their push towards the Ukrainian capital, are now focusing on the eastern region of Donbass, where Ukraine said on Tuesday it was investigating an allegation that a toxic substance had been dropped on its troops. The nature of the substance was unclear, but Western officials warned that any use of chemical weapons by Russia would be a serious escalation of the already devastating war.
Russia invaded on February 24, with the aim, according to Western officials, of taking kyiv, overthrowing the government and installing a regime favorable to Moscow. Over the next six weeks, Russia’s ground advance stalled, its forces lost potentially thousands of fighters, and the military was blamed for killing civilians and other atrocities.
Putin insisted on Tuesday that his invasion was aimed at protecting people in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed rebels and “ensuring Russia’s own security”.
He said Russia “had no choice” but to launch what he called a “special military operation”, and promised it would “continue until its complete completion and fulfillment of the tasks which have been defined”.
For now, Putin’s forces are preparing for a major offensive in Donbass, torn by fighting between Russia’s allied separatists and Ukrainian forces since 2014, and where Russia has recognized the separatists’ demands for independence. . Military strategists say Russian leaders appear to be hoping that local support, logistics and terrain in the region will favor the larger and better-armed Russian military, potentially allowing its troops to turn the tide in their favor.
In Mariupol, a strategic port city in Donbass, a Ukrainian regiment defending a steelworks claimed that a drone had dropped a toxic substance on the city. He said there were no serious injuries. The claim of the Azov Regiment, a far-right group now part of the Ukrainian military, could not be independently verified.
It came after a separatist official allied with Russia appeared to urge the use of chemical weapons, telling Russian state television on Monday that separatist forces should seize the plant by blockading first all exits. “And then we will use chemical troops to smoke them out,” said the official, Eduard Basurin. He denied on Tuesday that separatist forces used chemical weapons in Mariupol.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said officials were investigating and it was possible that phosphorus munitions – which cause horrific burns but are not classified as chemical weapons – were used in Mariupol .
Much of the city was razed to the ground in weeks by Russian troops. The mayor said on Monday that the siege had left more than 10,000 civilians dead, their corpses “lying in the streets”. Mayor Vadym Boychenko said the death toll in Mariupol alone could top 20,000 and gave new details about claims by Ukrainian officials that Russian forces brought in mobile cremation equipment to dispose of corpses.
Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, acknowledged the challenges facing Ukrainian troops in Mariupol. He said on Twitter that they remain stuck and have supply problems, while Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian generals are “doing everything possible (and impossible) to find a solution and help our guys”.
“For more than a month and a half, our defenders are protecting the city from (Russian) troops, which are 10 times larger,” Podolyak said in a tweet. “They are fighting under bombs for every meter of the city. They are making (Russia) pay an exorbitant price.”
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the use of chemical weapons “would be a relentless escalation in this conflict”, while Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said it would be a “violation totality of international law”.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that the United States could not confirm the drone report. But he noted the administration’s continuing 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 are banned from civilian areas under international law, in Mariupol.
Most armies use phosphorus ammunition to illuminate targets or produce smoke screens. Deliberately firing them in an enclosed space to expose people to the fumes could violate the Chemical Weapons Convention, said Marc-Michael Blum, former lab chief at the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
“Once you start using the properties of white phosphorus, the toxic properties, specifically and deliberately, then it becomes prohibited,” he said.
Faced with fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces reinforced by Western weapons, Russian forces have increasingly resorted to bombing cities, razing many urban areas and causing thousands of deaths. The war has also driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes, including nearly two-thirds of all children.
Moscow’s withdrawal from towns and villages around the capital, Kyiv, has led to the discovery of large numbers of apparently massacred civilians, prompting widespread condemnation and accusations that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine.
Reports have mainly focused on northwestern suburbs such as Bucha, where the mayor said 403 bodies were found. Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk feared the toll would rise as minesweepers scour the area.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office said on Tuesday it was also investigating events in the northeast Brovary district.
The prosecutor’s office said the bodies of six civilians were found with gunshot wounds in a basement in the village of Shevchenkove and that Russian forces were responsible.
Prosecutors are also investigating allegations that Russian forces fired on a convoy of civilians trying to drive away from the village of Peremoha in Brovary district, killing four people, including a 13-year-old boy. In another attack near Bucha, five people were killed, including two children, when a car came under fire, prosecutors said.
Putin falsely claimed on Tuesday that Ukraine’s accusation that hundreds of civilians were killed by Russian troops in the town of Bucha was “false”. Associated Press reporters saw dozens of bodies in and around the city, some with their hands tied that appeared to have been shot at close range.
The Russian leader spoke at the Vostochny space launch facility in the country’s Far East, in his first known foray outside Moscow since the start of the war. He also said that foreign powers would not succeed in isolating Russia.
He said Russia’s economy and financial system had withstood the blow from what he called the “blitz” of Western sanctions and claimed they would backfire by driving up the prices of essentials such as than fertilizers, leading to food shortages and increasing migratory flows to the West.
Addressing the pace of the campaign, Putin said Russia was proceeding “calmly and rhythmically” as it wanted to “achieve planned goals while minimizing casualties”.
While building up its forces in the east, Russia continued to strike targets across Ukraine in an effort to weaken the country’s defenses. Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Tuesday it used air- and sea-launched missiles to destroy an ammunition depot and aircraft hangar at Starokostiantyniv in the western Khmelnytskyi region and an ammunition depot near kyiv. .
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