Chemical Warfare in Eastern Ukraine: The Controversial Use of White Phosphorus


In a recent and alarming development, Russian security forces have accused the Ukrainian army of employing chemical weapons, specifically white phosphorus, near Artemovsk (officially known as Bakhmut) in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). This accusation has ignited a fresh wave of controversy and international concern over the conduct of warfare in the tumultuous region. The gravity of these allegations necessitates a thorough examination of the events, the nature of the substances involved, and the broader legal and political implications.

On Tuesday, as reported by Russian media, including the state-run Sputnik news agency, Ukrainian forces were alleged to have used chemical weapons in the vicinity of Kleshcheyevka village, close to the city of Artemovsk. The evidence provided was a video showcasing a glass flask, claimed to contain a poisonous chemical agent. This agent, upon release, is said to produce gas that irritates human mucous membranes, leading to severe respiratory distress. The symptoms associated with this exposure—coughing and a burning sensation in the upper respiratory tract—point towards the suspected use of white phosphorus.

White phosphorus, a substance known for its highly incendiary properties, is not merely a tool for illumination or creating smokescreens on the battlefield. When used against personnel, it can cause devastating burn injuries and even death. The chemical’s interaction with oxygen leads to a fierce burning reaction that can continue until it completely consumes the material or is cut off from oxygen supply. Beyond the immediate physical dangers, the psychological impact on those exposed to white phosphorus cannot be understated.

The deployment of such weapons raises immediate red flags under international humanitarian law. Protocols III and IV of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which many countries, including Ukraine and Russia, are party to, regulate the use of incendiary weapons and explicitly prohibit the use of chemical and incendiary weapons against civilian populations. However, the legal intricacies come into play with the definition of white phosphorus as an incendiary rather than a chemical weapon. While its use is restricted, it is not entirely banned under international law. The controversy stems from the dual-use nature of white phosphorus—employed for signaling, screening, and as an incendiary weapon, it straddles the line between conventional and chemical warfare.

The method of delivery, as cited in the reports, involved drones dropping glass flasks containing the chemical. This tactic suggests a targeted approach aimed at inflicting direct harm on personnel, further complicating the legal and ethical dimensions of the incident. The use of drones for deploying such substances indicates a tactical shift and an escalation in the methods of warfare employed in the region.

Russian security forces’ response to the alleged chemical attack has been to issue warnings to the local population, urging them not to interact with any suspicious or unidentified objects, signaling the seriousness with which they view the threat. The implications of these allegations are far-reaching, affecting not only the immediate safety of individuals in the conflict zone but also the geopolitical stability of the region.

Analyzing the political ramifications, this incident could exacerbate already high tensions between Russia and Ukraine, potentially drawing in international actors and affecting diplomatic relations. The use of chemical weapons, or even allegations thereof, serves as a potent catalyst for international condemnation and could lead to calls for increased sanctions or other punitive measures against the perpetrator.

Furthermore, the incident underscores the enduring complexity and brutality of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, a region marred by years of fighting and a humanitarian crisis. The international community, particularly organizations such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), may find it imperative to investigate these claims to ensure accountability and prevent the further use of prohibited weapons.

White Phosphorus Munitions: A Dual-Edged Sword in Modern Conflict

White phosphorus (WP), an element that ignites upon exposure to oxygen, has been used in military applications for over a century. Its utility ranges from creating smoke screens to signaling and even as an incendiary weapon. The controversy surrounding its use, particularly in populated areas, stems from the severe burns it can inflict on human skin, leading to debates on its legality under international law. This article delves into the specifics of various white phosphorus munitions, their military applications, and the ethical and legal debates surrounding their use, especially in the context of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

M825A1 – 155mm Artillery Shell

The M825A1 is a 155mm artillery shell designed primarily to create smoke screens. Used by howitzer units, it can cover large areas with smoke, effectively concealing troop movements and hindering enemy targeting capabilities. The shell contains felt wedges impregnated with WP, which scatter over a wide area upon detonation, creating a thick, white smoke that can persist for up to 15 minutes. Despite its non-lethal intent, the use of M825A1 in or near civilian areas raises concerns due to the potential harm from unburned white phosphorus particles.

Projectile TypeWhite-Phosphorus Smoke (WPS)White-Phosphorus Smoke (WPS)
PurposeProduce screening smokeProduce screening smoke
Duration5-10 minutes5-10 minutes
ColorLight green with red markingsLight green with red markings, yellow band
CarrierModified M483A1Modified M483A1
Expulsion ChargeIncluded in carrierIncluded in carrier
Body MaterialModified M483A1 all-steelModified M483A1 all-steel
Base MaterialAluminum and steelSteel with plastic insert
PayloadWhite-Phosphorus (WP)White-Phosphorus (WP)
Felt Wedges3/4 inch impregnated3/4 inch impregnated
CanisterHermetically sealed steelHermetically sealed steel
Number of Wedges per Quadrant2929
Total Wedges per Canister116116
Burster Charge1/4 inch diameter (approx. 21g)1/4 inch diameter (approx. 21g)
Central Cavity1/2in x 1/2in1/2in x 1/2in
Cavity Produced byOff-setting the canister X ribsOff-setting the canister X ribs

AN-M14 TH3 – Incendiary Grenade

The AN-M14 TH3 is an incendiary grenade primarily used to destroy equipment and create fires. Containing white phosphorus, it ignites upon exposure to air, producing a high-temperature flame that can melt through metal, destroy equipment, and ignite structures. While its military utility is clear, the AN-M14’s potential for causing severe burn injuries makes its use in populated areas highly controversial.

Here’s a detailed scheme table based on the information you provided about the AN-M14 Thermite incendiary hand grenade:

TypeThermite (TH3) Incendiary Hand Grenade
Primary UseDestroying Equipment
Burn Temperature4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2200 Celsius)
Former NameM9
Current DesignationAN-M14
Burn Duration30 to 45 seconds
Body MaterialThin Sheet Metal
FillerThermite TH3, First Fire Mixture VII
FuzeM201A1 Pyrotechnic Delay Igniting Fuze
Fuze TypeDelay Igniting
Body FeaturesPrimer First Fire Mixture
Additional ComponentsStriker, Striker Spring, Safety Lever, Safety Pin with Pull Ring
Safety PinSplit End with Angular Spread

M15 – White Phosphorus Grenade

Similar to the AN-M14, the M15 white phosphorus grenade is used for signaling, screening, and as an incendiary device. Its ability to produce instant smoke screens makes it valuable for quick concealment during combat. However, the risks it poses to civilians and the environment due to its incendiary properties are significant concerns for human rights organizations.

Component/CharacteristicM15 White Phosphorus Grenade
TypeWhite Phosphorus (Nicknamed “Willie Pete”) Grenade
Primary UseSmokescreen, Incendiary
Smoke GenerationWhite Phosphorus Particles Burning at 5000°F for 1 minute
DamageSmoke: 5 yards (60 seconds), 1d(0.2) burn per 10 seconds
Heat OutputNearly 5000 degrees Fahrenheit (approximately 2760°C)
BurnsExcruciatingly Painful Burns
IgnitionCan Ignite Flammable Objects
ExtinguishingDeprived of Oxygen; Continues Burning Underwater, Requires Dousing in Sand or Copper Sulphate Solution

L8A1/A3 – 81mm Mortar Smoke Bomb

The L8A1 and L8A3 are 81mm mortar rounds containing white phosphorus used to generate smoke screens quickly. These rounds are effective in obscuring the vision of enemy forces and marking locations on the battlefield. While they are primarily intended for smoke generation, the presence of white phosphorus means they can cause severe injuries if used improperly or in close proximity to unprotected personnel.

Component/CharacteristicL8A1/L8A3 Screening Smoke Grenade
TypeScreening Smoke Grenade
ModelL8A1, L8A3
Body MaterialRubber
Weight1.5 pounds
Filler360 grams of red phosphorous/butyl rubber mix (95/5 proportion)
Length7.28 inches
Diameter2.61 inches
Burster Charge15 grams of black powder in a plastic burster tube
IgnitionBurster charge ignites the smoke composition
Smoke ColorRed
Dispersal Time2 to 6 seconds after firing
Dispersion RangeApproximately 98 feet (30 meters) from launching device
Bursting Fan105 degrees
HeightUp to 10 meters
Forward Range20 to 50 meters
Duration1 to 3 minutes
Vision ScreeningUnaided or unenhanced vision only
Delay Composition Burn TimeL8A1: 3/4 second, L8A3: 1 second

M116 – Hand Grenade

The M116 is a hand grenade designed for signaling and screening, utilizing white phosphorus to produce smoke. Its compact size and ease of use make it suitable for rapid deployment by ground troops needing to signal their positions or create immediate cover. Like other WP munitions, the M116 carries risks of unintended harm to both military personnel and civilians due to the nature of white phosphorus.

Usage in Ukraine

In the conflict in Ukraine, there have been reports and controversies over the use of white phosphorus munitions. Both sides of the conflict have accused each other of using such weapons, which has led to international scrutiny and calls for investigations. The dense smoke and bright light produced by WP munitions can be tactically advantageous, but their potential to cause severe burns and environmental damage makes their use a subject of intense ethical and legal debate.

Ethical and Legal Considerations

The use of white phosphorus in warfare is regulated under international law, particularly in protocols related to incendiary weapons. While not banned outright, the use of WP is restricted, especially in areas with civilian populations. The potential for indiscriminate harm has led to calls for stricter regulations and even complete bans on the use of white phosphorus in military conflicts.

In conclusion, the reported use of white phosphorus by Ukrainian forces, as alleged by Russian security forces, represents a critical juncture in the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine. This incident, steeped in legal and ethical controversy, necessitates a rigorous international investigation to ascertain the facts and uphold the principles of international law. The use of such weapons not only endangers lives but also undermines the rules of engagement that seek to mitigate the horrors of warfare. As the situation evolves, it is imperative for all parties involved to adhere to international norms and for the international community to remain vigilant in preventing the descent into unrestrained chemical warfare.

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