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Russia accused of chemical attack in Mariupol, city on brink of capture

Russia has been accused of a chemical attack on far-right Ukrainian forces reportedly holed up in an underground complex beneath a huge steelworks factory in Mariupol. The besieged southeastern port city has almost fallen to Russian forces.

(CN) — Russia was accused of launching a possible chemical attack Monday night against the last Ukrainian forces still fighting in the devastated southeastern port city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian officials say tens of thousands of civilians have been killed.

The alleged chemical attack remained unverified as of Tuesday, but the accusation further escalates the war in Ukraine. There is danger the war will continue to spiral out of control and further draw in NATO.

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his latest comments on the war and called the fight with Ukraine “inevitable” and vowed to continue the war.

“A clash with the anti-Russian forces growing in Ukraine was inevitable, it was a matter of time,” Putin said during a visit to the Vostochny Spaceport in Russia’s Far East.

Russia was infuriated by the 2014 overthrow of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych during the so-called “Maidan Revolution,” a period of mass protests, violence and atrocities.

The Kremlin accuses Washington of backing what many experts describe as a coup d’etat against Yanukovych – a corrupt politician but one who was democratically elected – and installing a pro-Western, anti-Russian government. Following his overthrow, Russia annexed Crimea, where its Black Sea Fleet was based, and backed an armed separatist uprising against Kyiv by militants in two eastern regions of Ukraine.

Since 2014, the U.S. has turned Ukraine into a close ally and expanded NATO operations there. In 2007, Putin warned NATO against making Ukraine a member of the military alliance, but Washington was not deterred and continued to bring the former Soviet republic into NATO’s sphere.

During Putin’s visit to the Vostochny Spaceport, he announced Russia will restart its moon program and vowed that Western sanctions will not hinder Russia’s ambitions to develop new technologies.

“Russia will develop its own competencies to replace those that it could previously buy with petrodollars,” he said.

He blamed Kyiv for not living up to a peace deal to end the eight-year war with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, a region known as the Donbas. He added that peace talks with Kyiv are at a “dead end” and that Russians are uniting due to the difficulties their country faces.

“The goals of the operation to protect the Donbas will be achieved, they are noble,” Putin said. “The Russian armed forces act courageously, competently, efficiently and effectively, they use the most modern types of weapons.”

The alleged chemical attack was reported by the Azov Regiment, a far-right militia group that formed during the Maidan Revolution and was incorporated into the Ukrainian army. Azov said some of its soldiers experienced heartburn, itching and elevated blood pressure, but that those affected were in “relatively satisfactory condition.”

Ukrainian and Western officials said they were looking into the allegation.

A boy walks by unexploded Russian shells in the village of Andriyivka, Ukraine, on Monday, April 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said any use of chemical weapons would be “a callous escalation” of the war. The Pentagon called the potential use of chemical weapons “deeply concerning.”

Russia did not immediately refute the allegation, though pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine said the Azov Regiment was lying.

The Kremlin has pointed to the existence of the Azov Regiment and other far-right militias as reasons for its invasion. In launching the assault on Ukraine, Putin said Russia was going to “de-nazify” and “demilitarize” Ukraine. The Kremlin accuses “Nazis” of taking control of Ukrainian institutions and persecuting ethnic Russians in Ukraine.

During World War II, sections of Ukraine backed Nazi Germany against the Soviet Red Army and many Ukrainian far-right nationalists today see themselves as continuing that struggle against an oppressive Russia.

But Putin’s contention about Kyiv being run by “Nazis” is far-fetched and many experts say it is inaccurate. For instance, Ukraine’s far-right political parties pick up only a small fraction of votes and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish. Nonetheless, far-right militias like the Azov Regiment allegedly do wield a lot of power, especially inside Ukraine’s military and intelligence services.

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The use of chemical weapons would mark a serious escalation in the war and it could cause the West to react even more firmly against Russia.

Last month during a visit to Poland, U.S. President Joe Biden said NATO would respond “in kind” if Russia used chemical weapons in Ukraine.

“The nature of the response would depend on the nature of the use,” he said.

On Tuesday, British Defense Minister James Heappey ruled nothing out if a chemical attack was confirmed, according to the BBC.

“There are some things that are beyond the pale, and the use of chemical weapons will get a response and all options are on the table for what that response could be,” he said.

Mariupol has nearly fallen to Russian forces, though more than 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers, many of them Azov fighters, are believed to be holding out inside the Azovstal steelworks plant.

Reportedly, there is a large underground complex beneath the factory and Ukrainians fighters appear to be hiding there.

Fears of a chemical attack were heightened after a leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic hinted at the use of chemical weapons on Monday. The Donetsk People’s Republic is one of two regions in Donbas that has declared itself independent from Ukraine.

“There is no point in storming this facility [the Azovstal plant] because of its underground levels; we would lose many of our soldiers without doing any damage to the opponent,” Eduard Basurin, the press secretary for the Donetsk People’s Republic, told RIA Novosti, the Russian state agency.

“So right now we have to figure out how to blockade this plant, to find all entry and exit points – in theory, this can be done,” he said, as reported by Ukraine’s Pravda news outlet. “I think, we’d have to ask the chemical specialists, who will find a way to smoke those rats out of their holes.”

Mariupol mayor's, Vadym Boichenko, said in televised remarks that officials believe about 21,000 people have been killed in the city. Boichenko is no longer in the besieged city and Russia has begun to install new administrators.

Over the weekend, Boichenko alleged Russia has forced about 31,000 people from Mariupol into camps in Russia. There are allegations that Russia is forcibly resettling Ukrainians in Siberia and other remote places, prompting many to draw parallels with the Soviet Union's gulag system.

Seizing Mariupol has been a key objective of Russia's because possessing the city would give it control over the Sea of Azov and create a “land bridge” between the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea and the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas. Mariupol is situated in the region of Donetsk, which Putin recognized as an independent state along with Luhansk on the eve of the Feb. 24 invasion.

Mariupol has nearly been taken by Russian and separatist forces with reports and videos detailing Ukrainian soldiers surrendering. Early Tuesday morning, trapped Ukrainians troops reportedly tried to break free but were stopped, according to Russian military sources.

Elsewhere, the fighting and bombing continued with intensity. Russian forces are preparing for a large-scale attack on Ukrainian forces in the Donbas. Up to 100,000 Ukrainians troops are at risk of being encircled, but the area has been heavily fortified and the pending battles could prove decisive and gruesome.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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