Mon. Nov 28th, 2022
Ukrainian flag in blue and yellow, wrapped over sky and grain

There are extremely concerning reports on the news this morning, that Russia has escalated its use of force in Ukraine, by using chemical weapons. Do not forget that Russia has publicly declared that it intends the war to be ended by May 9th: the date on which Russia declared victory over the Nazis in 1945, and a date on which, presumably, it would also like to declare victory over those Ukrainians whom it has said are Nazis as well. A level of escalation may therefore be expected.

Chemical weapons?

Reuters reports that this morning, civilians were fleeing from areas of eastern Ukraine ahead of an anticipated Russian offensive, while Kyiv said it was checking unconfirmed reports that Russian forces had used chemical weapons in the besieged port city of Mariupol.

The battle for Mariupol, where the regional governor said tens of thousands may have been killed, appeared to be reaching a decisive phase, with Ukrainian marines holed up in the Azovstal industrial district.

Should the Russians seize Azovstal, they would be in full control of Mariupol, the lynchpin between Russian-held areas to the west and east. The city has already been laid waste by weeks of Russian bombardments.

Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said the government was checking unverified information that Russia may have used chemical weapons while besieging Mariupol.

“There is a theory that these could be phosphorous munitions,” Malyar said in televised comments.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had said on Monday night that Russia could resort to chemical weapons as it massed troops in the eastern Donbas region for a new assault on Mariupol. He did not say if they actually had been used.

The United States and Britain said they were trying to verify the reports.

The governor of the eastern Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said he had seen incident reports on possible chemical weapons use in Mariupol but could not confirm them.

“We know that last night around midnight a drone dropped some so-far unknown explosive device, and the people that were in and around the Mariupol metal plant, there were three people, they began to feel unwell,” he told CNN. They were taken to hospital and their lives were not in danger, he said.

Asked about the total number of dead in Mariupol, Kyrylenko said: “We are currently discussing 20-22,000 people dead”, adding that the figure needed to be checked very carefully.

Russian-backed separatist forces did not use chemical weapons in their attempts to take full control of Mariupol despite Ukrainian allegations to the contrary, Eduard Basurin, a separatist commander, told the Interfax news agency.

Chemical weapons production, use and stockpiling is banned under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Although condemned by human rights groups, white phosphorous is not banned under the CWC.

Russia’s defence ministry has not responded to a Reuters request for comment. But should it prove to be the case that chemical weapons have been used, it would mark a dangerous new development in a war that has already left a trail of death of destruction since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops over the border on Feb. 24.

Meanwhile, a chemical weapons expert (reported in the BBC)  is urging caution over claims that chemical weapons may have been used during an attack on the southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, noting that there remains “a paucity of information” about what happened.

Dan Kaszeta, from the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), said it is “legitimately difficult” to assess these situations remotely, particularly when relying on mainly second-hand or third-hand reports instead of evidence from the scene.

The symptoms that the Ukrainian soldiers are reportedly showing, such as difficulty breathing, “does not tell us much”, he said in a series of tweets (copied below):

“We still have a paucity of information. It is legitimately difficult to assess these situations remotely, particularly when we largely have second-hand or third-hand reports rather than actual evidence from the scene.

Even if we did have video of, say, sick people, it is proper difficult to do telemedicine. Some of you are literally asking me to be a doctor and do a diagnosis remotely. This is perilous.

Rather a lot of you are jumping straight to nerve agents and even a specific diagnosis of Sarin. Cut that out. That’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because if someone gives nerve agent drugs to someone who isn’t a nerve agent casualty, it will make them worse or kill them.

Nerve agent antidotes are specifically that. They are not some kind of universal chemical agent antidote.

Back to the alleged incident. Let’s look at what we have as our thin basis of evidence.

We have a witness account citing a drone. (Q: Do we have a picture or video of the drone?) We don’t know if the drone was actually involved or coincidental.

We have a handful of sick, but not dead, Ukrainian soldiers. They’ve had difficulty breathing and ataxia. This does not tell us much. People leaping onto nerve agent diagnosis from this presentation of signs and symptoms are way off.

The phrase “vestibulo-atactic syndrome” has been bandied about with much evident authority, but my opinion right now is that’s a quite advanced medical diagnosis. Q: Did someone put some signs and symptoms into Google and come up with that phrase?

What we really have is people being dizzy.  What we don’t have is signs and symptoms (and any kind of medical diagnostics) that narrow the investigative focus to chemicals, let alone a specific chemical warfare agent.

For us to get to a conclusion that a chemical weapon was used, we need a few things that are missing at this point.

First things first, we need to look at differential diagnosis.  Rather a lot of you are running around saying that you hear zebras, whereas there could be horses, which are more common/

Let’s look at the place. It’s a steelworks. There’s lots of scope in an industrial setting for conventional or incendiary weapons to cause chemical problems because of fires and explosions.

Also, look at the broader environment. Mariupol is one big toxic burn pit at the moment. Somehow we’re supposed to assume that one small drone payload of something is tragically unhealthier than the rest of this mess of an environment.

It is, in fact plausible. But it’s also plausible that we have a classic problem of smoke and flame and modern industrial materials (plastics etc) burning all over the damned place.

Second, we do not have any actual description of the alleged chemical. Is it a powder, a liquid spray, a mist, a gas, a vapour? Does it smell? Does it have a colour?

The answer I get was that it was invisible and odourless. This raises the question – how do you know it was there or tie it to the drone? Without environmental and/or biomedical samples, this will always remain an unknown.

By the way, I’m not accusing anyone on the scene of lying. It’s just that chemical attacks are, in fact, a rare thing, and people might not know what to expect or look for or what smart questions to ask on the spot. The fog of war is real. And this is a swamped yet fragile information space. It’s a front in an information war.

By going all apeshit on Twitter about a vague and ill-defined incident, you’ve all just demonstrated how CW is more an information weapon than a battlefield weapon.

I couldn’t agree with him more, and I wish the BBC had used his whole series of tweets. So if you’re hearing a lot of fuss about this incident. Wait, hold your horses, and let the experts decide what has happened.  Any Ukrainian battalion that is struggling might be tempted to use this ploy to provoke further and stronger action from the West. Ukraine is very unlikely to hold on to Mariupol: it’s at the point of falling. Claiming chemical weapons have been used could be, as Kaszeta said, a front in the information war. Or it could be true. Right now, no-one knows.

Obviously, assuming that someone is correct simply because they are cited as an authority is problematic. We need more information – verified information.

Elsewhere:

After their troops got bogged down in the face of Ukrainian resistance, the Russians abandoned their bid to capture the capital Kyiv for now. They are redoubling their efforts in the east and Ukrainian forces are digging in to face a new offensive.

The governor of Luhansk region, Serhiy Gaidai, urged residents to evacuate using five humanitarian corridors agreed for the east.

“It’s far more scary to remain and burn in your sleep from a Russian shell,” he wrote on social media. “Evacuate, with every day the situation is getting worse. Take your essential items and head to the pickup point.”

In all, nine humanitarian corridors had been agreed for Tuesday, including one from Mariupol, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said that aside from trying to take control of Mariupol, Russian forces were intent on capturing Popasna, a town about two hours drive west of Luhansk, and were set to launch an offensive in the direction of Kurakhove in Donetsk. Ukrainian troops had repulsed attacks in both Luhansk and Donetsk.

President Zelenskiy pleaded overnight for more weapons from the West to help it end the siege of Mariupol and fend off the expected eastern offensive.

“Unfortunately we are not getting as much as we need to end this war faster…in particular, to lift the blockade of Mariupol,” he said.

Separately, in an address to the Lithuanian parliament, Zelenskiy urged the European Union to impose sanctions on all Russian banks and Russian oil and to set a deadline for ending imports of Russian gas.

“We cannot wait,” he said. “I would like to remind world leaders that the possible use of chemical weapons by the Russian military has already been discussed. And already at that time it meant that it was necessary to react to the Russian aggression much harsher and faster,” said Zelenskiy.

Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine would undoubtedly achieve what he said were its “noble” objectives.

Speaking at an awards ceremony in the Russian Far East, Putin was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies that said Moscow had no other choice but to launch a military operation to protect Russia and that a clash with Ukraine’s anti-Russian forces had been inevitable. Today, Putin flew into Russia’s far east Amur region for talks with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, expected to focus on Ukraine and Russian-Belarusian integration.

Japan has responded to Putin’s threats of escalation.

“We are seriously concerned about the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told a news conference. “We, as a sole country that has suffered nuclear attacks during war, intend to keep on appealing firmly that any threat of the use of nuclear weapons, let alone their actual use, should never be allowed.”

If there are more updates on this I will edit the post. Meanwhile please do not submit posts about it yourselves, but if you have verifiable information, put it on the thread.

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