Thwarted in his apparent ambition to invade the Ukrainian capital, Russian President Vladimir Putin is now mobilizing forces for a new offensive in the eastern region of Donbass, and insisted on Tuesday that his campaign would achieve its goals.
He said Russia “had no choice” but to launch what he called a “special military operation”, saying it was to protect civilians in the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbass.
As Ukrainian forces prepare for another attack, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said it was possible that phosphorus munitions – which cause horrific burns but are not classified as chemical weapons – were used in Mariupol.
The town is in the Donbass and was razed to the ground in six weeks by Russian troops who, according to the mayor, left more than 10,000 civilians dead, their corpses “lurking in the streets”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Monday that Russian forces could use chemical weapons in the city, echoing similar and repeated warnings from Western officials.
Leaders inside and outside the country said they were urgently investigating an unconfirmed claim by a Ukrainian regiment that a poisonous substance had been dropped on fighters in Mariupol.
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”.
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. In other regions, they retreated to regroup.
Their withdrawal from towns and villages around kyiv led to the discovery of large numbers of apparently massacred civilians, prompting widespread condemnation and accusations that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine.
The war has also driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes, including nearly two-thirds of all children.
Yet there are fears of even wider carnage to come, amid signs that the Russian military is preparing for a major offensive in Donbass.
A senior US defense official on Monday described a long Russian convoy rolling towards the eastern city of Izyum with artillery, air force and infantry support.
During a visit to the Russian Far East, Putin insisted that the military operation would prevail and 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 Western sanctions ‘blitz’ and claimed the sanctions would backfire by driving up commodity prices essentials such as fertilizers, leading to food shortages and increasing migration flows to the West.
Donbass has been riven by fighting between Russia-allied separatists and Ukrainian forces since 2014, and 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 permanently turn the tide in their favor.
Describing a battle unfolding around a steel plant in Mariupol, a separatist official allied with Russia appeared to urge the use of chemical weapons on Monday, telling Russian state television that separatist forces should seize the plant to Ukrainian forces by first blocking all exits. “And then we’ll use chemical troops to smoke them out,” he said.
But Eduard Basurin was quoted by the Interfax news agency on Tuesday as saying that separatist forces “did not use any chemical weapons in Mariupol”.
It was the Ukrainian regiment defending the plant that 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.
Truss said the UK was “working urgently” to investigate the report, while Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement the US could not confirm the drone report. from Mariupol.
But Kirby 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 – the use of which in civilian areas is prohibited by international law – in Mariupol.
This city has already seen some of the heaviest attacks and civilian suffering of the war, but the land, sea and air assaults by Russian forces fighting to capture it have increasingly limited information about what is happening outside. inside the city.
Speaking to The Associated Press by phone on Monday, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko accused Russian forces of blocking weeks of attempted humanitarian convoys in the city in part to cover up the carnage. Boychenko said the death toll in Mariupol could exceed 20,000.
He said around 120,000 civilians in the city are in dire need of food, water, heat and communications.
Boychenko also gave new details about allegations by Ukrainian officials that Russian forces brought mobile cremation equipment to Mariupol to dispose of the corpses of siege victims.
Boychenko spoke from Ukrainian-controlled territory outside of Mariupol.
The mayor said he had several sources for his description of the alleged methodical burning of bodies by Russian forces in the city, but did not detail the sources.
While building up its forces in the east, Russia continued to strike targets across Ukraine in an effort to weaken the country’s defenses.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Tuesday it used air and sea missiles to destroy an ammunition depot and an aircraft hangar at Starokostiantyniv in the western Khmelnytskyi region and an ammunition depot near kyiv.