Examining the latest claim of incendiary weapon use in the Donbas
On December 6, the Ukrainian Armed Force’s (UAF) television channel, Ukrainian Military TV, published a video showing what is allegedly the use of phosphorus grenades by Russian-led separatist forces from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) near the village of Novoselivka, Donetsk Oblast.
In the video, a Ukrainian soldier claims that 18 grenades were used near Ukrainian positions. Fortunately, the weapons did not harm any civilians or soldiers. During the segment, a soldier shares a video he recorded on his phone showing the use of the alleged phosphorus weapons.
Assessing if this munition really used white phosphorus is difficult based off of night-vision footage and low-quality video, but it would not be the first allegation of the usage of this type of weapon in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
What is White Phosphorus?
White phosphorus is used in a number of munitions, including grenades, mortar shells, and aerial bombs, either in order to produce a large amount of white smoke, or to utilize white phosphorus’s extremely dangerous incendiary properties.
Most commonly, the former purpose is intended — the thick white smoke produced by white phosphorus munitions can serve as a potent smokescreen or as a signaling mechanism. However, this white smoke is produced alongside extreme heat, which can cause fatal chemical burns and significant fire-related property damage. White phosphorus can burn to the bone of anyone it comes into contact with.
Previous allegations of white phosphorus use in eastern Ukraine
The most recent alleged use of white phosphorus is far from the first allegation of its use in the Donbas, with both Ukrainian and Russian-led separatist forces accused of deploying it in the conflict. However, it is important to note that many allegations of white phosphorus use are actually other types of incendiary weapons. While not all of the allegations are related to white phosphorus, the use of all incendiary weapons generally is still extremely dangerous to the health and livelihood of civilians in the Donbas.
Mistaken identity in Ilovaysk
For example, a comprehensive investigation by Harriet Salem on VICE News from November 2014 documented the use of incendiary munitions delivered by 9M22s rockets fired by a BM-21 “Grad” multiple launch rocket system (MLRS). Unfortunately, indiscriminate and incendiary BM-21 Grad MLRS fire is seen regularly along the contact line. In this case, rockets were fired outside of the city of Ilovaysk, leading to a scene that resembled fireworks. Vice published a video of this incident provided to them by a local resident, allegedly conducted by the UAF.
Despite this attack being widely reported as a use of white phosphorus, analysts at Armament Research Services (ARES) concluded that a little-researched Soviet incendiary munition was used in these unguided Grad rockets, not white phosphorus.
Even though the munition was different, the effect was still devastating to the local population, with fire falling from the sky over a long period of time and least eight houses “completely destroyed.”
“White Phospohrus”in Sloviansk
Perhaps the most infamous example of white phosphorus allegations came during Ukraine’s advance on Sloviansk, which the UAF re-captured in the summer of 2014. On June 11, Russian television network LifeNews published a video claiming to show the use of white phosphorus by the UAF near Sloviansk.
The video was so compelling that Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for an investigation of Ukraine’s alleged use of white phosphorus immediately after the video was published.
However, this case shows that it is quite difficult to prove use of white phosphorus from just a blurry video. Human Rights Watch analyzed this clip and found:
After analyzing the LifeNews video clip, Human Rights Watch arms researchers concluded that it didn’t show a white phosphorous — or an incendiary weapon — attack. What the video actually appears to show is an illuminant or a pyrotechnic.
Yet again, we see in the Sloviansk example how easy it is to mistake a bright, firework-like explosion for white phosphorus, as a number of dangerous incendiary weapons and less dangerous illuminants appear quite similar to white phosphorus at first glance.
Ukraine has made a number of formal allegations of Russian-led separatist white phosphorus use since the outbreak of the conflict in 2014, with the latest being the recent video on Ukrainian Military TV.
In a November 2016 address to the Permanent Council in Vienna, the Ukrainian delegations claimed that Russian-led separatist forces used white phosphorus near Mariupol:
However, there is no conclusive documented evidence supporting this claim available. Similarly, the ATO Press Center claimed that Russian-led separatist forces used white phosphorus at the village of Pisky, Donetsk Oblast in May 2015, but the OSCE SMM to Ukraine was not able to confirm this allegation.
The SMM was then guided to a spot allegedly impacted by a white phosphorus mortar grenade. According to one of the soldiers, the shelling occurred around midnight on 18 May. The SMM noted a crater of less than 1m in diameter and 50cm deep, and assessed it to be an impact of an 82mm mortar. Although both representatives of the JCCC claimed incoming white phosphorus mortar grenades were observed, the SMM was not able to confirm their usage, based on available evidence and analysis at the scene.
Allegations on the use of white phosphorus by both sides occurred frequently since the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine, prompting responses from both the Russian Foreign Minister and high-level Ukrainian officials. However, despite the frequent claims, it is difficult to find many — if any — proven, documented examples of the use of the deadly substance in eastern Ukraine over the past three years. In fact, most of the most infamous cases of “white phosphorus use” have been identified as other types of munitions, though many of those munitions can be just as deadly to civilian populations as white phosphorus.
Without dedicated analysis from a neutral body, such as the OSCE SMM to Ukraine, it is difficult to corroborate the Ukrainian military’s most recent claim of Russian-led separatist use of a white phosphorus munition in Donetsk Oblast. Almost any weapon that looks like a firework or produces a large amount of white smoke is immediately alleged to be white phosphorus, but as recent history has shown, most often a different — but perhaps equally dangerous — weapon is actually being used.
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