Kharkiv primary school left in ruins after Russian air strike

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been ongoing for more than two weeks and as Russian troops have advanced, so too has the indiscriminate violence against Ukrainian civilians.

Reports suggest Russia bombed a maternity hospital in Mariupol – an important port city on the Black Sea. The attack left three people dead, including a child, according to reports.

According to the United Nations, at least 549 civilians, including 41 children, have been killed since the war broke out but actual numbers are feared to be much higher.

With tension growing all the time, officials have begun to fear that Putin may be preparing to use chemical weapons in Ukraine.

What are chemical weapons?

Weapons of this nature are defined as “a chemical used to cause intentional death or harm through its toxic properties”, as per the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Devices and equipment used for the deployment of toxic chemicals to cause harm are also included as chemical weapons.

Chemical weapons can be deployed in multiple forms including gas, liquid or solid.

The use of chemical weapons in warfare has been banned since 1925 when 193 countries signed the Geneva Protocol.

However, according to the OPCW, chemical weapons were seen used during the Syrian Civil War at least 17 times by Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed regime.

We also saw a chemical weapon used in Salisbury in 2018 in a targeted attack against Sergei Skripal. 5 people were injured in the incident.

What have world leaders said?

Ukraine’s President Zelensky has stayed in Ukraine to defend his country throughout the war. He has warned that the threat of chemical weapons is “very real”.

In a televised address made on 10 March, Zelensky directed his words to the Russian troops, asking: “Where will you strike with chemical weapons? At the maternity hospital in Mariupol?

“At the church in Kharkiv? Okhmadit children's hospital? Or at our laboratories, which have been around since Soviet times and work on regular technology, not military technology?”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson also expressed concern at the prospect of Russia’s “barbaric” regime using chemical weapons in the Russia-Ukraine war, saying it is “straight out of their playbook”.

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His concerns were echoed by technology minister Chris Philip, who feared Russian disinformation claiming that Ukraine is preparing a chemical attack will be used as their justification for employing chemical weapons.

Philip told Sky News: “We have seen in the last 24 or 48 hours what appear to be bits of disinformation published by Russian state outlets, including in fact the Russian embassy here in London, putting on things like Twitter information that appear to be creating a false narrative that Ukrainians are considering using chemical weapons, which is clearly ridiculous and totally untrue.

“Sometimes they do that in preparation but I hope that’s not what they’re contemplating. The use of chemical weapons in any theatre of war, certainly one where there are lots of civilians, is totally unacceptable.”

The White House has also warned that Russia could employ the use of chemical weapons or create a false flag operation using them.

In a Twitter thread by White House press secretary Jen Psaki, she said: “It’s Russia that has a long and well-documented track record of using chemical weapons, including in attempted assassinations and poisoning of Putin’s political enemies like Alexey Navalny.

“It’s Russia that continues to support the Assad regime in Syria, which has repeatedly used chemical weapons. It’s Russia that has long maintained a biological weapons program in violation of international law.

“Also, Russia has a track record of accusing the West of the very violations that Russia itself is perpetrating. In December, Russia falsely accused the U.S. of deploying contractors with chemical weapons in Ukraine.

“This is all an obvious ploy by Russia to try to try to justify its further premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attack on Ukraine.”

How likely is a chemical weapon attack?

Given that Russia has used chemical weapons in warfare in the recent past, as well as the current strand of disinformation about Ukraine threats and US bio labs in Ukraine, there is real concern that this could be a possibility.

The assistant secretary of defence for Barack Obama, Andy Weber, now sits on the Council on Strategic Risks. He has claimed that a chemical attack by Russia in Ukraine is much more likely than a nuclear strike.

Weber told The Telegraph: “Despite Putin’s reckless bluster on nuclear weapons, the use of biological weapons in Ukraine is much more likely.

“The USSR had the largest biological weapons programme the world has ever known and parts of it have continued uninterrupted since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

“Russia has three military biological facilities that have never, to our knowledge, been visited by non-Russians. We don't fully know what they're up to.”

How could the West react?

Defence minister James Heappey has indicated there may be international intervention if chemical weapons are used on Ukrainians, as he pointed to previous use of chemical weapons in warfare.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said: “I don't think it's helpful to get into any firm commitment right now about where that red line sits, but I think President Putin needs to be very clear that when other countries have used chemical weapons it has caused an international response.

“I think he should reflect very urgently on what has happened to other countries where they have used them.”

Heappey warned that the use of chemical weapons would be far worse than the current horrific bombardment we are seeing in Ukraine.

He continued: “President Putin needs to be clear that the use of chemical weapons is just the most despicable thing that anybody can imagine.

“As horrid as the pictures we are seeing on our TV screens today of an artillery strike against a hospital (are), they are but nothing by comparison to the suffering and devastation that chemical weapons cause.”

And the UN reacted to Putin's assertion about Ukraine too:

“This is exactly the kind of false flag effort we have warned Russia might initiate to justify a biological or chemical weapons attack," Olivia Dalton, spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, said late on Thursday.

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.

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