Russia is spreading a false narrative before using chemical weapons in Ukraine as it did in Syria

Syria was pressed to join the chemical weapons convention in 2013 by its close ally Russia [File: George Ourfalian/AFP]

Russia’s state Investigative Committee said on Monday it was examining the alleged use of chemical weapons by Ukrainian forces near the towns of Soledar and Bakhmut.

Ukraine’s Defence Ministry did not immediately reply to requests for comment on the allegation, which was not accompanied by any publicly released evidence.

The Investigative Committee said the Donetsk People’s Republic – one of Russia’s proxies in the territories it has seized and occupied in eastern Ukraine – had reported the use of chemical weapons by Ukrainian drones near the two locations.

“As a result, servicemen of the Russian Armed Forces are experiencing a deterioration in their health and characteristic symptoms of poisoning,” it said, without providing details or naming the alleged substance.

Since the start of its invasion nearly a year ago, Russia has repeatedly warned that Ukraine might be preparing to use non-conventional weapons, including biological weapons or a radioactive dirty bomb. No such attack has materialised.

Ukraine and its Western allies rejected those accusations but saw them as a possible prelude to a “false flag” attack, meaning Russia might itself resort to such tactics but seek to blame Ukraine. Russia has dismissed that claim.

Use of chemical weapons in Syria

The international chemical weapons watchdog has told the United Nations Security Council its experts investigated 77 allegations against Syria, and concluded in 17 cases chemical weapons were likely or definitely used.

Fernando Arias, head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), on Thursday called it “a disturbing reality” that eight years after Syria joined the chemical weapons convention, which bans the production or use of such weapons, many questions remain about its initial declaration of its weapons, stockpiles and precursors and its continuing programme.

He said the OPCW will be taking up a new issue at its next consultations with Syria – “the presence of a new chemical weapons agent found in samples collected in large storage containers in September 2020”.

Arias said he sent a letter informing the Syrian government he intended to send an OPCW team to look into this issue from May 18 to June 1 2020, and requested visas but never got a response.

He said he informed Damascus he was postponing the arrival to May 28 2020. With no reply from Syria by May 26, he said: “I decided to postpone the mission until further notice.”

Russia has sharply criticised the OPCW and its investigators, accusing them of factual and technical errors and acting under pressure from Western nations.

Clear facts

The United Kingdom’s UN Ambassador Barbara Woodward countered that “the facts of this case are clear”.

“There are 20 unresolved issues in Syria’s initial chemical weapons declaration, which is deeply concerning,” she said.

“The UN and the OPCW have attributed eight chemical weapons attacks to the Syrian regime. It’s clear that the regime retains a chemical weapons capability and the willingness to use it.”

Woodward said the Security Council will continue to insist on Syria’s full cooperation with the OPCW, “and the full and verifiable destruction of Syria’s chemical programme”.

US Deputy Ambassador Richard Mills said “no amount of disinformation – espoused by Syria and its very small number of supporters – can negate or diminish the credibility of the evidence that has been presented to us by the OPCW”.

“The Assad regime – supported by Russia – continues to ignore calls from the international community to fully disclose and verifiably destroy its chemical weapons programme,” Mills said.

“Without accountability for the atrocities committed against the Syrian people, lasting peace in Syria will remain out of reach. The United States, once again, calls for justice and accountability as critical components to help move Syria towards a political resolution to the conflict.”

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