As the city on the coast of the Sea of Azov continues to see immeasurable destruction, Mariupol has become the embodiment of the struggle between Russia and Ukraine in many ways. The scenes from Mariupol look eerily apocalyptic as debris from airstrikes so dense that it completely obfuscates the layout of city streets. This reality is nothing new, as Mariupol has been a crucial center for conflict between Ukrainian forces and their opposition going back to 2014 when separatist states in the Donbas were declared.
The integral strategic position of Mariupol makes its defense crucial to Ukraine. Willing to defend the city at all costs, the National Guard of Ukraine even commissioned the neo-nazi paramilitary Azov Battalion in order to bolster its firepower. Azov Battalion itself has personified the culture war between Russia and Ukraine, from being cited as the basis for Russian President Vladimir Putin's mission to "de-nazify" Ukraine (which has since be abandoned) to representing the nationalist sentiment among Ukrainians that has existed since the fall of the Russian Empire preceding the Bolshevik Revolution.
Since its ascent, Azov Battalion has become a lightning rod for controversy given their ideological background which presents a clear contradiction to the western narrative championing the virtue of inclusion and the sanctity of democracy. Given its polarizing reputation, Azov Battalion has made some of the rashest accusations against the Russian Federation in an effort to deflect from criticisms levied against them. It was Azov Battalion that entered the city of Bucha in the days before it was propped up as evidence of war crimes, a claim that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov vehemently denied, going as far as to offer to present proof of the contrary to the United Nations.
Despite the best efforts of Russia's opponents to spin a narrative implicating Russian forces in the massacre of innocent civilians in Bucha, that attempt has already lost momentum. Following that futile initiative, it appears that Azov Battalion has enacted a contingency plan to further allege war crimes against the Russian Federation as a means of enticing more military involvement from NATO member states. The nationalist paramilitary did so on Monday by claiming that the Russian Federation used chemical weapons against civilians in Mariupol.
Azov Battalion took to its official Telegram page to launch the claim that Russian forces used an unmanned aerial vehicle ("UAV") to deploy a chemical agent. "About an hour ago, Russian occupation forces used a poisonous substance of unknown origin against Ukrainian military and civilians in the city of Mariupol, which was dropped from an enemy UAV...The victims have respiratory failure, vestibulo-atactic syndrome. The consequences of using an unknown substance are being clarified." they stated.
The announcement's intended effect manifested immediately as Ukrainian Minister of Parliament ("MP") Solomiia Bobrovska took to Twitter to legitimize Azov Battalion's claims. In their tweet, the MP beckoned NATO and US President Joe Biden to take immediate action. It should be noted that Bobrovska also serves as the Deputy Head of the Ukrainian Delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, a body that serves as a bridge between NATO and the parliaments of its member states. In 2002, the NATO PA implemented a special Ukraine-NATO Interparliamentary Council as a means to further ingratiate the Russian border country into its sphere of influence.
Despite Bobrovska putting their name to the Azov Battalion's claims that Russia deployed chemical weapons in Mariupol, there is no corroboration of the allegation from any objective third party yet. Ukrainian President Volodoymyr Zelensky delivered a daily video address to his nation on Monday evening after Azov Battalion's announcement but did not echo the veracity that Bobrovska gave to the claim. While Zelensky asserted that Russia "could" use chemical weapons, his vaguely abstract premise surely falls short of anything tantamount to an endorsement of any further accusations of war crimes against the Russian Federation.
An old occult axiom states that there is nothing new under the sun. In 2018, similar claims were made that the Assad Government deployed chemical weapons in the city of Douma in the midst of its civil war. Opposition to Assad cited Syria's vast stockpiles of sarin gas to legitimize their accusations to presumably provide a means to justify regime change that would oust the Syrian President from power. Yet, in the wake of an investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons ("OPCW"), doubts arose about the accuracy of the allegations.
Although the OPCW issued a final report supporting the assertions against Assad, a memo written by Ian Henderson, a member of the group's task force to Syria conveyed that his findings which contradicted the conclusions in the final report were excluded from it all together and that he was removed from the project itself. “At the conclusion of the in-country activities in Syrian Arab Republic, the consensus within the … team was that there were indications of serious inconsistencies in findings.” The conclusions were “turned completely in the opposite direction,” the memo states.
Wikileaks also found that Sebastien Braha, Chief of Cabinet at the OPCW, instructed the organisation to remove Henderson's report from its documents registry archive in a manner that would erase it from history. Although OPCW has made successive conclusions that the Assad regime has deployed chemical weapons, the suspect nature of the claims and the clear political entanglements of the organisation making them creates a standard of doubt that is impossible to overlook.
As war in Ukraine carries on, it appears that opponents of Vladimir Putin may have dove back into their old bag of tricks by using a strategy they previously executed in Syria. If the claims by Azov Battalion are propped up like those made against Assad, it may not forecast a war crimes tribunal against Putin like that which President Joe Biden called for. Instead, the accusation foreshadows another situation analogous to that in Syria; a proxy war between the western and Russian spheres of influence that like the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has no end in sight.
Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, famously declared that the war in Afghanistan wasn't meant to be won but to be waged in an effort to shift geo-political climate and economic conditions. His warning proved prescient. Assange's words not being heeded led to decades of senseless death and destruction. If they aren't echoed now, then Ukraine may befall a fate just as dire as Afghanistan.