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Putin’s Secret Weapon: Is Russia Using White Phosphorous in Ukraine?

Russian T-90 tank firing its main gun. Image Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense.

Is White Phosphorus Being Used Against Ukraine? – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently told the world that Russia has embarked on a path of more destruction against his people. Zelenskyy has accused Vladimir Putin’s forces of using incendiary white phosphorous weapons in Ukraine. This accusation has not been confirmed by outside observers, but if true, their use would be a notable escalation.

What Is White Phosphorous Intended For?

White Phosphorous is supposed to be used for illuminating dark spaces for fighters – much in the same way flares light up the sky for a better vision of the battlefield. White phosphorous can also create a smokescreen to obscure troop and vehicles movement during daytime use.

What Happens When The Substance Touches People?

But white phosphorous bombs can burn people badly. The wax-like substance ignites when coming into contact with air and it creates fast-burning fires. The material can stick to clothing and skin making their victims suffer in agony when the fire burns through flesh and bones.

Well-documented In Social and Mainstream Media

Zelenskyy offered no known evidence such as victim testimony or photos. But social media images have circulated that show cascading flare-like fireworks streaming down on towns in Ukraine such as Popasna and Irpin. These photos are reported to be examples of white phosphorous used against the populace. The deputy commander of Kyiv’s police said they were used in the eastern city of Kramatorsk on March 22. The next day, the British channel ITV released this video on what it believed to be white phosphorous raining down in the suburbs of Kyiv.

White Phosphorous: Is This a War Crime?

Any weapon of this toxicity used against non-combatants is a potential war crime, but white phosphorous is not part of the list of banned chemical weapons under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Even U.S. forces used them to mask movement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Moreover, the militaries of many countries have them in their possession.

But human rights observers claimed that Russia used them against civilians in Syria. This video shows an immense cloud of flame reportedly taken in Umm al-Karamil in 2017 in Aleppo. The Russians have denied their use.

It Could Get Worse

RAND Corporation researcher David Johnson told Business Insider that the possible use of white phosphorous would be a deadly escalation by the Russians.

“So, it’s not the fact that they have them as how they employ them that’s really problematic. And I see that happening and quite frankly, in Ukraine, I think it’s going to get worse.” Johnson said. “What we ought to be paying attention to is how they’re using them. And the record of the Russians is horrific.”

Is This a Sign of Further Escalation to Include Chemical Weapons?

If the Russians are willing to use white phosphorus indiscriminately against population centers, will they escalate to chemical weapons? President Joe Biden has promised a “response in kind” if the banned weapons are used in Ukraine.

Nerve Agents Used Against Individual Enemies of the Kremlin

Russia is a signatory of an international treaty that bans the production, storage, and use of chemical weapons. But the Kremlin is believed to have used the nerve agent novichok against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England in 2018. Other dissidents and enemies of the state such as Alexi Navalny was poisoned by novichok in 2020.

Russia’s offensives in major Ukrainian cities have mostly stalled and a stage of siege tactics has been the result. Russia has been willing to use artillery and rocket fire against civilians, but Ukraine has refused to give up encircled cities such as Mariupol.

The Kremlin could get so desperate that they would continue to use white phosphorous and even ponder the utilization of chemical weapons. The international community has been alerted and human rights groups will be on the lookout for more potential war crimes with these horrifying weapons.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, Ph.D., is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.