Claims of chemical weapons in Mariupol, an arrest that wasn’t and avoiding mistakes in the information war
Remember that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
On April 11th, Eduard Basurin, spokesman for the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic in occupied Ukraine, stated that Russian forces fighting in Mariupol needed to bring in the “chemical troops” to root out the remaining Ukrainian defenders using the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. Azovstal is one of the few remaining points in the city the Russians have not taken from the Ukrainians in a brutal siege that has left Mariupol a burned-out shell of a once vibrant city of nearly half a million inhabitants. The Russians are of course responsible for this devastation, but even after hundreds (and probably thousands) of civilian deaths, forcibly relocating thousands of Ukrainian refugees to Russia and most of the city’s infrastructure in ruins, the Russians have continued and will continue to describe their “special operation” in Mariupol as a “liberation” of its people from the “Nazis” running the Ukrainian government.
The Ukrainian forces in Azovstal have held out in part thanks to the series of underground tunnels in the facility that make it difficult and extremely costly for the Russians to track down the forces inside. Thus, Eduard Basurin’s threat on Russian state-owned media to use “chemical troops” to force the Ukrainian defenders out of their underground defenses made tactical sense even if the suggestion was morally reprehensible and the action itself would be considered a war crime. Russian “chemical troops”, officially known as Radiation, Chemical and Biological Defense Troops [RKhBZ], are in fact distinct units within the Russian armed forces which operate in radioactive, chemical and biological warfare environments. One stated purpose of these forces is to reduce Russian combat losses sustained by those agents if or when they are used against Russian Federation soldiers. However, the units are also trained in the offensive use of nuclear, chemical and biological warfare agents. So, when the world jumped to the conclusion that Basurin’s threat to bring in the “chemical troops” meant the Russians planned to use chemical weapons against the Azovstal defenders, this was a logical conclusion to draw. However, the distinction was lost by many and very quickly social media was abuzz and any nuance was lost. Twitter believed the Russians were going to use chemical weapons against the Ukrainians.
Later that same day, only hours after Basurin’s comments had made the rounds on social media, Ukrainian Azovstal defenders claimed that the Russians had in fact used chemical weapons (just like they’d threatened, you see!) against them. The evidence for this was scant, but the Ukrainians stated that a Russian drone had landed inside their defenses and released an as of yet undetermined chemical agent. Pictures of injured Ukrainian soldiers were then shared to show the effects of these chemical agents. The photos were of injured Ukrainian soldiers but what caused their injuries? Your guess is as good as mine. Nevertheless, this was all social media needed to turn these claims into another round of exasperated condemnations against the Russians and demands for retaliation. The United States and other Western countries made statements expressing “concern” and that they were monitoring the situation. Days passed without any additional evidence that chemical weapons had been used.
Then on April 16th, five days after the supposed release of chemical weapons in Ukraine, Eduard Basurin—the same DNR spokesman who had first threatened to use the chemical weapons against the Azovstal defenders—was reportedly arrested by the Russian FSB and taken to an undisclosed location. This was reported by the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine a/k/a GUR. The statement included the purported reason for Basurin’s arrest. GUR said it was “linked to a careless statement that revealed Russia’s plans to use chemical weapons against Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol.”
Finally, it seemed as if those who had sounded the alarm over Russia’s use of chemical weapons had the evidence that they were right. Why else would Russia suddenly arrest Basurin after seven years operating as a pro-Russian official in the DNR? He had let the cat out of the bag and gave away Russia’s secret plan to complete their takeover of Mariupol. Maybe the evidence that Russia used chemical weapons hadn’t emerged because the plan to use chemical weapons had been aborted, or maybe the evidence was going to emerge but Russia had to arrest the guy who planned this so it didn’t look so obvious! That part wasn’t clear, but the two things just had to be related. It made such perfect sense.
There’s one little problem, however.
On April 19th, Eduard Basurin released a statement on the status of events unfolding in Mariupol. He was quoted by multiple Russian state-owned media outlets and described as a representative of the DNR working in the same capacity as he was on April 11th and roughly seven years prior to now. The arrest of Basurin apparently never happened.
On April 21, Putin released a video in which he stated that Russian forces had abandoned plans to seize the Azovstal steel plant from its Ukrainian defenders by force. Instead, he claimed Russian forces planned to keep the area around the plant fully encircled and force the Ukrainians to surrender. Given the expected condition of those left at Azovstal, this is likely to happen within the next few days as the defenders run out of what little supplies they have left. It seems the Russians believe they can wait them out. There are a number of civilians inside the plant along with Ukrainian soldiers, and the Russians are looking to avoid even more damning images of civilians dead by their hands. In truth, the Kremlin will go a step further and cast the Russian forces in a positive light with this “humanitarian gesture”. Instead of proving their brutality once again, the Russians hope to show their “special operation” really is about “liberating” the Ukrainians. Nevermind the fact that Ukrainian officials report the Russians continued bombing and shelling the plant over the weekend.
Russian propaganda will no doubt highlight the fact that not only did they not use chemical weapons in Mariupol, they’re saving as many people as possible! Is it all contrived? Certainly. None of those people trapped at Azovstal would be there if the Russians hadn’t chosen to invade their country. Their city wouldn’t be in ruins if the Russians hadn’t indiscriminately bombed one building after another. The fate of captured soldiers and civilians won’t be pleasant—forced relocations, Gulags, torture or executions await nearly everyone there. Nevertheless, the Russians will cast themselves as the good actors here who were the victims of a smear campaign by hysterical Ukrainians who lied about chemical weapons. It’ll work, as well as any such contrived argument can.
So, why did Azov claim that chemical weapons were used if they weren’t?
In the fog of war, confusion is rampant. War is hell, but it’s also chaos. It’s possible the Russian did use tear gas or other riot control chemicals which could induce early symptoms that could appear to be the result of banned chemical weapons. It’s also possible Russian artillery released chemicals into the air that produce a similar effect. We don’t know, and we’ll probably never know.
The remaining Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol know that without NATO directly intervening in the war, the city will be lost. One Ukrainian fighter on April 21st released a video pleading for Western aid wherein he stated, "We may have only a few days or hours left." Who can blame them for trying? If you were desperate, wouldn’t you try anything to get the help you need? It’s possible they lied about the Russians using chemical weapons. It’s possible the belief that chemical weapons were used was an honest mistake and was pounced upon by anti-Russia critics and Ukrainians equally desperate for Western assistance. Their hope is that more reporting on Russian atrocities might encourage the West to do more for them. This happened after details of the Bucha massacre were revealed. However, the accusations in Mariupol have fallen on deaf ears, partly because little evidence has emerged to back up the extraordinary claims.
What was the point of Eduard Basurin’s statement and his purported arrest?
Ukrainian allies uncritically believed GUR’s statement that Eduard Basurin was arrested because he admitted to the thing Russia was already planning to do—use chemical weapons in Ukraine. However, it’s worth pointing out that the interview with Basurin that everyone was citing came from Russian state-owned media station Channel 1. Why did they air it if they had a problem with what he was saying? We know the government censors are looking at this stuff, and we know these videos are aired on delay. There are almost never any surprises. Basurin has been the spokesman for the so-called Donetsk People's Republic for seven years. The idea that he completely went off script here without clearing his messaging through proper channels and then the government censors simply rubber stamped his off-message comments strains credulity.
The Russians have incessantly highlighted the fact that many of the Ukrainian defenders in Mariupol are from the Azov Regiment, which is the Kremlin’s way of saying “Azov Nazis” are defending Ukraine. That’s why, according to the Kremlin, Ukrainians need to be “liberated” in the first place. Basurin’s statement and the subsequent social media firestorm over the supposed use of chemical weapons brought the “Azov Nazi” conversation back to foreground of commentary on Ukraine for several days (rather than say, confirmed Russian atrocities in Bucha), and of course, all this talking was centered around an event for which there is no evidence and culminated in an arrest that didn’t happen. Whether intentional or not, we all started looking where the Kremlin wanted us to.
Whatever happens next in the information war between Russia and Ukraine, remember this. Russia wants you to amplify a hoax. If the Russians really do use chemical weapons in the future, they will say “the hoaxers are at it again”. Yes, the Russians will deny their atrocities over and over again, whether the evidence is flimsy or undeniable. That’s exactly what happened when the Russia’s allies in the Syrian government used chemical weapons against their own people. Both Russian and Syrian government media outlets denied responsibility and even took #SyriaHoax to the top of Twitter’s trending list thanks to bots and useful idiots in the West. If the Russians really do use chemical weapons against the Ukrainians, you can expect a repeat of this playbook.
The Russians don’t need to convince you to believe them. The goal is to make the truth seem unknowable and like it’s hopeless to even try to uncover it.
Many will argue that it shouldn’t matter that the Ukrainians were wrong about chemical weapons being used in Mariupol. They’ll say the Ukrainian cause is morally right, and the people who spread misinformation about this attack are justified on moral grounds. Maybe the West was wrong about a chemical weapons attack in Mariupol, but "it's not like Russia wouldn't do this" or "they're probably going to really do it in the future anyway". And yes, they could, but we've just made it easier for them to get away with it.
How so? If the Russians do use chemical weapons against Ukraine in the future, you can be certain that the world—particularly the Western world—will notice. The Russians will be called out publicly. Investigations will be launched. New sanctions may be unveiled, and more weapons may be sent to the Ukrainians. What will the Russians do? They’ll deny it, of course, and try to get #AzovHoax or #UkraineHoax trending on social media, and the Ukrainians and the West won’t believe them for a second, but here’s the rub. All the old articles, tweets and statements stating that chemical weapons were used against Ukrainians defending the Azovstal plant on April 11, 2022 will reemerge. Russian state-media will share the screenshots and videos. Kremlin spokesmen will do the same in every interview or appearance they can. Bots and Kremlin propagandists on social media will post the images again and again with snarky captions and emojis. Their argument will be “these people lied once, how can you trust them now,” and it will leave enough doubt in people’s minds that the condemnations will be quieter, and the consequences for the Russian will be smaller. Information warfare is a battle of attrition, and the Kremlin gained a little ground with this one.
All we can do is be as honest as possible as often is possible. That usually requires patience and skepticism, which is the exact opposite of social media’s intended use. Waiting for evidence is not a glorious position. It’s often unrewarding, but it’s exactly what the Russians hate.