War Crimes
(Image Source: The General Staff for the Armed Forces of Ukraine)

War Crimes and Threats of Chemical Weapons: The Latest on the Invasion of Ukraine

On Thursday, February 24, Russia launched a full-scale military invasion of neighboring Ukraine. 

The action marked a significant escalation between the countries, which have been in a state of conflict since Russia first supported an invasion of the eastern Donbas region and annexed the coastal peninsula of Crimea in 2014. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks the most significant warfare seen in Europe since World War 2. 

According to the Kremlin, the invasion is merely a “special military operation” aimed at “denazifying” and “demilitarizing” Ukraine. 

Here is The Debrief’s update of the conflict as of the morning of March 10. 

Current Military Situation

Russian forces continue to try and maneuver into position to encircle the capital city of Kyiv. 

Throughout March 9, advances towards Kyiv were primarily confined to small-scale, seemingly ad hoc operations. The equivalent of three Russian battalion tactical groups (BTG), or roughly 3,000 soldiers, reportedly tried to advance towards the western outskirts of Kyiv. Indications are this western push was unable to make any meaningful progress. 

As reported in yesterday’s updateThe Debrief assesses that the Russian vanguard west of Kyiv is likely composed of an assortment of proxy forces, including Ramazan Kadyrov’s Chechen fighters and Wagner Group mercenaries. The potential exists that some troops along the Kyiv axis could be non-uniform Belarusian troops. However, The Debrief has not seen any evidence to support this. 

Along its eastern approaches to Kyiv, Russian forces have remained relatively inactive for the past 48 hours. The lull in activity is likely due to Russia desperately needing to secure its logistical and communication lines along its northeastern axis. 

Determined and tactful harassing attacks by Ukrainian, particularly near the cities of Sumy, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv, are likely exasperating Russia’s ability to launch a concerted and coherent attack on Kyiv. 

A video released by the Ukrainian General Staff showed a column of Russian armored vehicles attempting to advance towards Brovary, just northeast of Kyiv. Appearing to be entirely unconcerned that they were moving down a well-defended, obvious avenue of approach, the column quickly came under fire from Ukrainian artillery. 

Russian regimental tank commander Colonel Andei Zakharov was reportedly killed in the failed advance. Zakharov’s death has yet to be confirmed by the Kremlin. However, Russia has already lost several high-ranking commanders. 

In the past 24 hours, there were no significant material changes in southern Ukraine and along Russia’s Crimea axis. 

There are indications that Russian forces may be attempting to bypass the southern city of Mykolaiv. These movements indicate Russia may attempt to cross the Dnipro river north of Mykolaiv to encircle the city of nearly 500,000 rather than engage its defenders directly. Encirclement of Mykolaiv would also open up a line of advance westward towards Ukraine’s only remaining uncontested port city, Odesa. 

Chemical Weapons
(Image Source: Ukrainian Ministry of Emergency Services)

war crimes and Humanitarian Crisis in Mariupol 

Russian troops continue to encircle and bombard the city of Mariupol. Reports indicate there is a severe ongoing humanitarian crisis for the coastal city with a population of over 400,000. 

Mariupol has been surrounded by Russian forces for roughly 9 days, and reports by city officials indicate trapped citizens have been without water, power, and limited food supplies for over a week. 

Russia has remained content in using stand-off fires from artillery, missile, and aerial bombardments to try and force Mariupol into capitulation. The heavy use of these indiscriminate weapons has resulted in severe damage to residential areas and an estimated large number of civilian deaths. 

On March 9, a Russian cruise missile struck a children’s hospital and maternity ward in Mariupol. On Wednesday evening, the World Health Organization (WHO) said the strike on the hospital resulted in at least 10 deaths and 16 injuries. 

The Kremlin did not deny launching a missile strike on the hospital. However, it claimed that reports of civilians being injured were “fake news.” Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s first deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, said the hospital had been turned into a “military object by radicals.” 

Attempting to justify the Kremlin’s claims, pro-Russian online trolls began circulating images showing Ukrainian tanks and artillery set up near a building purported to be the children’s hospital. 

A check of the images by The Debrief revealed the images to be Associated Press photos taken by photographer Evgeniy Maloletka in February 2017 in Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine. 

Numerous images and videos taken in the immediate aftermath of the missile strike show no evidence of any military equipment or activity and overwhelmingly confirm the presence of civilians at the hospital. 

Concerningly, Russia appears to have telegraphed the attack on the children’s hospital days before it occurred. 

Speaking in front of the U.N. Security Council on March 7, Russian diplomat Vassily Nebenzia said, “Ukrainian radicals show their true face more distinctly by the day. Locals reports that Ukraine’s Armed Forces kicked out personnel of natal hospital #1 of the city of Mariupol and set up a firing site within the facility.” 

There have been several attempts at setting up a ceasefire and humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from Mariupol. However, continued shelling has forced officials to abandon evacuation plans in each attempt. 

Both sides of the conflict have blamed each other for failing to comply with agreed-upon ceasefires. As The Debrief assessed in a previous update, Russia likely lacks the current command, control, and communication amongst its forces to effectively enforce a ceasefire. 

According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, roughly 1,200 civilians have died in Mariupol. 

War Crimes
(Image Source: The General Staff for the Armed Forces of Ukraine)

Russia Struggling To Mobilize Reserve Forces 

On March 9, the Kremlin admitted that conscripts had been fighting in Ukraine (in violation of Russian law) in a surprising move. The announcement came after weeks of assertions that only professional, volunteer soldiers were involved in the conflict. 

“I would like to emphasize that conscripts aren’t and won’t be taking part in hostilities,” said Putin on March 8. 

In typical shameless fashion, the Kremlin said that the use of conscripts in Ukraine was expressly against Putin’s orders and that military prosecutors had been ordered to investigate and punish the officials responsible for including conscripts. 

“Practically all such soldiers have been pulled out to Russia,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. 

There is substantial circumstantial evidence indicating Russia is currently struggling to mobilize reserve manpower to offset its losses in the first two weeks of the invasion. 

Unconfirmed reports indicate that Russia may have started moving troops and equipment from its far-east regions towards Ukraine, roughly a week into the invasion. Additional, anecdotal accounts suggest Russia could be moving its peacekeeping forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, between Armenia and Azerbaijan, presumably to participate in Ukraine. 

As reported yesterday, the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed Russia is attempting to recruit Syrian fighters for the conflict. 

Ultimately, in light of the Kremlin’s claims, The Debrief assesses Russia will likely have to start mobilizing additional forces if it wants to continue its campaign in Ukraine. 

Even still, it is unlikely that mobilizing reservists or calling up conscripts will have any near-immediate impact on Russia’s combat power. 

Developing cohesive fighting units takes time, and it is unlikely that reservists, who have spent years without military training, or hastily trained conscripts, will effectively be able to plug holes left by Russia’s high initial losses. 

It’s even more unlikely that the Kremlin will be able to pull significant numbers of foreign mercenaries to join the fight. Few Syrian rebel fighters will likely be motivated to fight on behalf of Russia in the frigid climate of Eastern Europe. 

Based on the disastrous state of Russia’s current economy, it’s also likely that Western intelligence services could easily outbid Moscow and cheaply pay off foreign mercenaries to not fight. 

War Crimes
(Image Source: Russian MOD)

Russia Setting The Stage to Use Chemical Weapons 

On March 9, Western officials began sounding alarms that Russia could be gearing up to use chemical weapons in Ukraine. 

During the daily White House briefing, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “We should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them – it’s a clear pattern.”

Defense officials say for months now, Russia has been setting the stage to use unconventional weapons by preemptively accusing Ukraine and the United States of planning to conduct a chemical attack on separatist-held areas of Donbas. 

Citing an unnamed, alleged former Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) officer, Kremlin-backed media said Ukraine was planning to use chemical weapons on schools, hospitals, and mass gatherings in then-Ukrainian-controlled eastern Ukraine.

Since the launch of its invasion, Russia has ratcheted up the rhetoric. Reports carried by state-backed media have claimed Russian forces found evidence Ukraine was attempting to produce chemical, biological, and/or nuclear weapons. Many of these false claims have been centered on the U.S. jointly conducting research in bioweapons inside Ukraine. 

Recently, pro-Kremlin online trolls shared a photo of an alleged NATO laptop, said to be captured by Russian troops in Ukraine. Some propagators said the computer contained secret evidence of joint bioweapons development by NATO and Ukraine. Other sources said the laptop was filled with intelligence on Russian-backed separatist forces, provided by NATO to “Ukrainian Nazi groups.” 

Observers humorously noted that the alleged NATO laptop was a 14-year-old Lenovo R500 with 250MB RAM. “I wonder if it even turns on,” said writer and political analyst Arieh Kovler. 

On March 9, Russian Defense Spokesperson, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov told Russian media that “Ukrainian nationalists” had delivered 80 tons of ammonia to Zolochiv, a village northwest of Kharkiv. 

Konashenkov claimed that the villagers had been taught how to act in case of a chemical attack. Konashenkov further warned that “nationalists” were preparing to conduct a “provocation using toxic substances to accuse Russia of allegedly using chemical weapons.”

Apparently willing to throw out any and every claim to see what sticks – on March 10, Konashenkov said authorities had uncovered evidence that the U.S. was funding research to weaponize the coronavirus at bio-laboratories in Ukraine. Implying that the U.S. and Ukraine were behind the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Konashenkov promised documents proving these claims would be “published in the near future.” To date, Russia has not provided any evidence to back up its claims that Ukraine was developing unconventional weapons of mass destruction. 

Speaking on background, senior U.S. defense and intelligence officials tell The Debrief there are indications that Russia is currently debating the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine. 

Officials said one of the most immediate concerns involved the potential of Russia conducting a false-flag chemical attack against citizens in the eastern Donbas region. Another possible but less likely, scenario could involve an attack in Russian territories along the Ukrainian border. 

By blaming Ukrainian forces, officials said a false flag attack of this nature would be almost entirely geared at galvanizing domestic support for the Kremlin’s war efforts and justifying further escalation and mobilization of reserves. 

“You’ve got high numbers of casualties, plus even the best troops can only remain combat effective for so long during a sustained high-intensity conflict. They’ve got to get replacements, but they’ve been selling this a limited military operation to the Russian people and promising not to use conscripts,” explained a U.S. defense official. “Something dramatic has to happen so Putin can suddenly change the tone to mobilize reserves if he wants to stay in this thing.” 

Chemical attacks against civilians blamed on opposition fighters have been a frequent theme during Russia’s military support of Syrian President Bashar. Some human rights groups have said Russia has been complicit in war crimes by the Assad regime and directly involved in carrying out chemical attacks in Syria. 

War Crimes
(Image Source: The General Staff for the Armed Forces of Ukraine)

Immediate Situations To Watch 

Russia will likely continue its western and eastern approaches in hopes of being able to encircle Kyiv. The Debrief assesses that it is unlikely that Russian forces along the Kyiv and northeastern axes presently possess enough combat power to encircle the Ukrainian capital. 

Russia will very likely continue to use stand-off artillery, missile, and aerial bombardments against the Ukrainian cities of Sumy, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Mariupol, and Mykolaiv. The threat to civilian casualties in these cities remains exceptionally high. 

The Ukrainian State Border Guard said more than 140,000 Ukrainians, primarily men, have returned since the start of the invasion. Bolstered by recent shipments of weapons from the West, it is likely that Ukraine will increase its counterattacks on Russia’s beleaguered supply lines in the next 24-48 hours. 

After failing to achieve air superiority and suffering several embarrassing losses, the Russian Air Force will likely continue to be a non-factor for the next 24-72 hours. This is particularly true along the Kyiv and northeastern axes. 

The Debrief assesses it is likely that Russia will conduct a false flag attack to bolster domestic support for the war and justify the mobilization of additional troops within the next 48-72 hours. Any false flag will probably involve the use of illegal chemical weapons. 

All indications are Putin is fully committed to the invasion and likely feels the war in Ukraine is one he cannot lose. At its current pace, however, Russia’s ability to succeed in its military and political goals continue to seem more unlikely. 

It is, therefore, likely that the Kremlin is currently looking for ways to escalate the conflict, both to increase indiscriminate violence and justify the mobilization of additional forces. 

Note: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an ongoing military conflict. Events on the battlefield are highly dynamic and can quickly change. Be sure to follow The Debrief on Twitter, @DebriefMedia, or The Debrief’s Tim McMillan @LtTimMcMillan, where we will provide updated information on the conflict. 

Follow and connect with author Tim McMillan on Twitter: @LtTimMcMillan or encrypted email: LtTimMcMillan@protonmail.com