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Thursday 9 February 2023 Dublin: 7°C
DPA/PA Images A soldier from the Azov Battalion, which first reported a Russian drone had dropped a "poisonous substance" on troops and civilians in Mariupol.
# mariupol
Explainer: How could it be determined that Russia used chemical weapons in Ukraine?
There are unconfirmed reports that chemical weapons were used in the city of Mariupol.

ALLEGATIONS THAT RUSSIA may have used chemical weapons in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol have caused international concern, as reports suggest as many of 10,000 people in the besieged city may have died.

These allegations have yet to be fully investigated, but if the use of chemical weapons or agents was confirmed, it could lead to an escalation in the response of key Western players. 

Experts have said caution should be taken around any suggestion of chemical weapon use before solid evidence is presented. They have also questioned what motive Russia would have for using these types of weapons in this particular conflict.

Here’s what we know about the situation so far. 

The allegations in Mariupol

Claims first emerged earlier yesterday from Ukraine’s Azov battalion that a Russian drone had dropped a “poisonous substance” on troops and civilians in Mariupol.

The force claimed people were experiencing respiratory failure and neurological problems.

“Three people have clear signs of poisoning by warfare chemicals, but without catastrophic consequences,” battalion leader Andrei Biletsky said in a video message on Telegram.

He accused the Russians of using the chemical weapons during a strike on the city’s large Azovstal metallurgical plant.

An aide to Mariupol’s mayor noted on Telegram the alleged chemical attack was “not currently confirmed”.

“We are waiting for official information from the military,” Petro Andryushchenko wrote.

Britain has said it is working with partners to verify reports that Russian forces may have used chemical weapons in Mariupol, but as of now the reports are unverified. 

What is a chemical weapon?

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention, defines a chemical weapon as a chemical used to cause intentional death or harm through its toxic properties.

Munitions, devices and other equipment specifically designed to weaponise toxic chemicals also fall under the definition of chemical weapons.

Under the CWC, the definition of a chemical weapon includes all toxic chemicals and the substances used to manufacture them, except when used for purposes permitted by the Chemical Weapons Convention – in quantities consistent with such a purpose.

Types of chemical weapons include;

  • Toxins such as ricin
  • Choking agents like chlorine
  • Blister agents such as sulfur mustard or nitrogen mustard
  • Blood agents like hydrogen cyanide
  • Nerve agents such as sarin and the commonly-known Novichok
  • Riot control agents such as tear gas or pepper spray

Depending on the chemical used, they can cause symptoms such as choking, skin burns and blisters, damage to vital organs, interference with the nervous system, seizures and paralysis. For some people who are exposed to these types of chemical agents, the effects can be fatal. 

Speaking to The Journal, Alastair Hay, Professor of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Leeds said the prognosis for a person exposed to one of these weapons depends on a number of factors such as their proximity, severity of exposure and the type of agent or toxin used.

“Chlorine was extensively used in Syria and chlorine is an asphyxiant, it displaces oxygen from the air and people die because they’re not getting enough oxygen. There is no antidote to this – other than fresh air – so this one depends on how severe the exposure is.

“With mustard gas there is no antidote, just symptomatic treatment of the blistering and skin damage and providing support for any damage to the airways. There are long-term consequences for many who are exposed, people may recover in the short-term but many have problems decades later.

“With nerve agents there are antidotes but success requires prompt administration. If you’re exposed to a lethal dose in a house somewhere away from any medical treatment it can be a rapid and horrible death, within minutes.”

When have they been used before?

In World War I, phosgene, which is a choking agent and mustard gas, a blistering agent, were both used. 

Thousands of Kurdish civilians were killed in a chemical attack by Iraqi forces in the  Iraqi city of Halabja in 1988.

Sarin was also used in Tokyo in 1995 by a doomsday cult that released the nerve agent in the subway, killing 13 people and causing illness in thousands.

The most recent and most high profile example is the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

In August 2013, the Syrian opposition accused the Syrian government of using the nerve agent sarin in attacks on Eastern Ghouta and Moadamiyet al-Sham, rebel-held areas outside Damascus.

That same month the US blamed the regime for these attacks, which killed 1,429 people, including 426 children.

In September, a UN report found “clear and convincing evidence” sarin was used in the attacks.

US president Barack Obama did not carry out threatened retaliatory strikes. Instead he reached a deal with Russia on the dismantling of Syria’s chemical arsenal under UN supervision.

In 2016 a UN and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) joint commission accused the regime of dropping chlorine-packed barrel bombs on two villages in rebel-held Idlib province in 2014 and 2015.

The commission also accused the Islamic State (IS) group of using mustard gas in 2015 in the rebel stronghold of Marea in Aleppo province.

In October 2016, the same joint commission found the Syrian army carried out a chlorine attack at Qmenas, in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, the year before.

In April 2017, warplanes struck the Idlib town of Khan Sheikhun, killing 87 people, including 30 children. UN and OPCW investigators confirmed sarin was used and said Damascus was responsible. 

In response to the attack, then US president Donald Trump launched Tomahawk missiles against the regime’s Shayrat airbase.

In February 2018, residents of Saraqib, south of Aleppo, reported a dozen cases of suffocation after regime bombing. The OPCW later confirmed that the Syrian air force had used chemical weapons there.

The Novichok group of nerve agents were used in the poisoning of former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in England in 2018. Novichok was also used to poison Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020.

How are chemical weapons regulated?

Most countries have signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention, but there are four exceptions: North Korea, South Sudan, Egypt and Israel. 

Professor Hay of the University of Leeds explained that the convention requires countries to destroy all stocks and to have no means of making chemical weapons.

It bans them from stockpiling these types of weapons or helping others to make them.

“Countries have generally complied as a result of that treaty and nearly 99% of the world’s declared chemical weapons have been destroyed,” he said.

“In 2017 Russia announced the destruction of the last of its 40,000-ton stockpile of chemical weapons. That was under the international inspection of the OPCW and there’s no question that what Russia said it had was destroyed. Most of the Russian stocks would have either been phosgene or mustard gas – which were both used in World War I – and nerve agents.”

He said countries are required by the OPCW to monitor certain chemicals and the ingredients used to make them. 

“They do that by monitoring industry and academic labs and defence establishments and the OPCW organises inspections of countries to verify that what they have reported is accurate,” he said. “The UK, for example, may have eight to 12 inspections per year or industry and defence establishments to check on the veracity of reports. The OPCW has been really diligent in carrying out these inspections and it does that globally.”

Why are they used and why would Russia use them in this instance?

“They’re used to frighten people,” Professor Hay said. “They are almost weapons of terror because often you can’t see them but they’re in the air you breathe. The idea that what you’re breathing in contains something that’s going to kill you terrifies most people – it terrifies me.”

He said that because troops have protective clothing and gas masks, chemical weapon use against soldiers is “essentially a waste of weapons” and this is why civilians, who have little or no protection, are targeted.

He said it would be “really self-defeating” for Russia to use chemical weapons at this point, but it is not completely out of the question.

“If they felt the Ukrainians were entrenched and well-defended and that no amount of heavy bombardment was going to be effective enough on their defences they might use something to penetrate into every crevice: remember, chemical agents are heavier than air so they go into every depression there is.”

Professor Hay said the situation in Ukraine is “unclear” but there have been suggestions of white smoke, which – if confirmed – could point to the use of white phosphorous. 

This chemical is used as an obscurant to hide troop movement and while it can poison people it is not technically classed as a chemical weapon because of its strategic military use. 

Hay said he has raised the issue with the OPCW because white phosphorus can have devastating effects and has been used as a weapon in countries such as Ethiopia.

How can these reports be confirmed?

Experts in this field have urged caution in relation to the reporting around these allegations as it is difficult to adequately assess the situation without an on-the-ground investigation.

Dan Kaszeta, a specialist in defence against chemical weapons, said it is possible that symptoms witnessed in Mariupol were caused by fumes from fires and explosions or from  burning industrial materials such as plastic:

He also questioned reports of an “invisible and odourless” chemical.

“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.”

If there is some solid evidence that chemical weapons have been used, 

Professor Alastair Hay said Russia has adhered largely to the Chemical Weapons Convention, “aside from the use of Novichok, which it denies”.

The OPCW could investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in Ukraine, but it would have to be invited in to conduct an investigation.

“They need access and they also need to be protected so they would need guarantees of safety from both warring sides,” he said. “That has been difficult in the past because if a side feels it will be exposed as having used them or that its gaining an advantage then it will delay access in the hope that evidence will have disappeared. 

“With some chemicals such as chlorine you can get environmental evidence from bleaching of vegetation for example. A team would also interview victims and look at patients and hospital records, they would look for munitions, where they came from and take samples from munitions and also other materials such as concrete, tarmac, soil, clothing.”

He said teams also take control samples from areas they know have not been impacted by an attack for comparison. 

In the case of biological samples taken from victims, timing is crucial he said, as humans degrade and excrete chemicals. However it is possible to find evidence in the environment years after an attack.

“I was involved in an investigation in 1992 in Iraq with a group called Physicians for Human Rights and we established that chemical weapons had been used four years previous from soil samples we collected,” he said. “It had mustard gas, some samples had the nerve agent sarin.”

What could happen next?

An investigation by the OPCW is a possibility if Ukrainian officials invite an investigation team to assess the situation. The OPCW cannot decide to launch an inquiry in a country without an invitation. 

Fighting around Mariupol continues and this could delay any investigation as the safety of a team could not be guaranteed. 

The UK has said it is working to verify reports, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss describing the use of these types of weapons as “a callous escalation in this conflict”.

She said the UK would “hold Putin and his regime to account” if the reports were confirmed.

US Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said late yesterday that Washington was aware of the reports but could not confirm them.

“These reports, if true, are deeply concerning and reflective of concerns that we have had about Russia’s potential to use a variety of riot control agents, including tear gas mixed with chemical agents, in Ukraine,” he said.

Russia has yet to comment on the allegations, but in a press conference today President Vladimir Putin labelled reports about civilian killings in the Ukrainian city of Bucha as “fake”.  

He compared the accusations to those concerning the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “It’s the same kind of fake in Bucha,” Putin said.

- With reporting from AFP. 

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