The Ukrainian government and its Western allies have been warning that an increasingly desperate Russian military might resort to chemical warfare for weeks.
That threat appeared to materialize on Monday, after Ukraine announced it was investigating “unverified” information that Russian troops used chemical weapons in the besieged southern city of Mariupol.
Unlike other reports of Russian atrocities in places like Bucha, which were quickly corroborated by Ukrainian and international authorities, the reports of chemical warfare in Mariupol have been treated with caution and skepticism.
That’s partly due to the source of the allegations: the far-right, ‘ultra-nationalist’ Azov militia group.
Azov leader Andriy Biletsky told the Kyiv Independent newspaper that three people in Mariupol displayed “clear signs of chemical poisoning” on April 11 — although Biletsky said there were no “disastrous consequences” for their health.
The unverified accusation set off alarm that Russia, already accused of an illegal invasion, massacring civilians and torture, had crossed another line in its increasingly bloody war.
But to understand why Azov’s claims are met with greater skepticism, you need to know about the regiment’s history – and its role in the information warfare being waged alongside Russia’s invasion.
Who is the Azov battalion?
Azov was formed in May 2014 as a “volunteer police battalion” according to Anton Shekhovstov, the director of Austria’s Centre for Democratic Integrity and a researcher on far-right groups in Europe. Their formation was directly influenced by Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
“The original battalion consisted mostly of football hooligans and members of the Ukrainian far-right, and it was the far-right organization ‘Patriot of Ukraine’ that was in charge of the original battalion,” Shekhovstov wrote.
“Several key people who were directly involved in the formation of the Azov battalion had an extremely dubious history of cooperating not only with pro-Russian forces in Ukraine but also with Russian political spin-doctors.
“Moreover, neither Azov nor other battalions did proper screening of volunteers, some of whom came from Russia. All that created a huge security risk of Russian operatives seizing control of Azov and turning into an anti-Ukrainian force.”
Shekhovstov wrote that some of the far-right elements in Azov departed to attempt to capitalize on the regiment’s military success, particularly in liberating Mariupol. But the far-right political parties in Ukraine failed to gain an electoral foothold — according to Shekhovstov, the far-right ticket received less than 2.2 per cent of the popular vote.
But Azov continues to be a force, both in a military sense and in the propaganda war. Russia’s “special military operation” has the “de-nazification” of Ukraine as one of its stated goals. The fact that Azov’s detractors refer to them as extremists with neo-Nazi roots assists in that propaganda campaign.
“But if we look at the actual facts, then in the last parliamentary elections in Ukraine, then the extreme right forces got less than three per cent (of the popular vote), which meant that they didn’t even get represented in parliament and instead by an overwhelming majority, a Jewish president was elected,” said Andres Kasekamp, a professor with the Munk School of Global Affairs at University of Toronto.
“And if you think of that three per cent, if you look around at most of the West, specifically Europe, then most European countries have extreme right groups which are in parliament with much more than three per cent.”
Claims of Chemical Weapons
According to the Kyiv Independent, Azov claimed that a “poisonous substance” had been “distributed by a drone.” Victims reported a shortness of breath and “vestibullocerebellar ataxia,” a neurological disorder, the regiment said.
The Ukrainian government has not confirmed the use of chemical weapons, and U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies — who have been releasing intelligence reports before and throughout the Russian invasion — have said they’re aware of the allegations but have not confirmed them.
“There is a theory that these could be phosphorous munitions,” said Hanna Malyar, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, on Tuesday.
“Official information will come later.”
U.S. officials said last week that it had delivered equipment to guard Ukrainian soldiers against chemical and biological weaponry.
Russia has denied the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine, and has accused the Ukrainian government — without evidence — of preparing to use chemical weapons themselves. The Kremlin and its proxies on the internet have also been active in spreading conspiracy theories about U.S. biolabs in Ukraine — a pretext, some observers have argued, for the use of chemical weapons by Russian forces.
But Western intelligence agencies — including in the U.S. and U.K. — have been hesitant to confirm Azov’s reporting, despite a general willingness to share sensitive intelligence about the Russian invasion.
Confirmation would put even more pressure on Western governments to assist Ukraine in their struggle. But if Azov’s claims are disproven or discredited, the Kremlin will have another arrow in its quiver to discredit Ukrainian claims of atrocities.
— with files from Reuters.