On March 25, the Russian Foreign Ministry's Twitter account attempted its own version of fact checking – a tweet purporting to debunk statements by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and an adviser, Anton Herashchenko.
According to the ministry's tweet, the pair had accused Russia’s military of using white phosphorus munitions against civilian targets. White phosphorous can burn through skin and bone. Though it can kill, it’s often used as a smokescreen or to light up targets.
Herashchenko is quoted as saying:
“The occupants use phosphorus bombs banned by the Geneva Convention. In the photo – phosphorus bombs in Popasnya [Ukraine].”
An accompanying photo shows glittering streaks against a night sky.
The Russian Foreign Ministry responded in its tweet:
“The anti-Russian #fakenews factory is not slowing down. No matter how ridiculous or unfounded, all fakes are picked up & legitimized by the MSM (mainstream media). The newest low is passing off harmless military flares as phosphorus bombs.”
A video in the tweet purports to show images of white phosphorus shells from other conflicts to demonstrate how they appear different from the streaks over Popasnya, which were shown in a still photograph.
The Russian Foreign Ministry tweet is misleading.
The videos the ministry used to claim that white phosphorus wasn’t used in Popasnya are not very helpful, in part because the time of day is different than what is seen in the footage from other conflicts purportedly showing the detonation of white phosphorus shells.
But what of the claim that Russia used “harmless military flares” for illumination? The streaks shown in the photograph of the sky over Popasnya don’t resemble standard military flares, which use parachutes to stay aloft longer.
Instead, the streaks over Popasnya more closely resemble those from a 9M22S incendiary shell fired from the Soviet/Russian-made BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launcher. This special rocket is loaded with pellets of a pyrotechnic compound similar to that used in incendiary bombs dropped during the Second World War.
According to the Armament Research Services (ARES), which monitors arms trafficking and use in global conflicts, one 9M22S rocket contains 180 individual magnesium alloy pellets, each of which has a burning time of roughly two minutes.
The purpose of such projectiles, ARES says, is to create large fires in areas of vegetation and other flammable material. In other words, their purpose is destructive.
In 2014, VICE News reported on an incident that had occurred in August of that year in the eastern Ukrainian town of Illovaisk, where a major battle took place and the Ukrainian armed forces suffered a significant reversal.
Eyewitnesses said they had heard the sounds of rockets launching and later saw what they thought were “fireworks” glittering in the sky. One said the “fireworks” then turned into balls of fire raining down from the sky, and his back yard was set ablaze.
Roofs of nearby houses also caught fire, and while residents were able to extinguish most of the flames, one house burned down.
What is interesting is that at the time, the incendiary compound also was mistaken for white phosphorus. In that case, the Russian and Ukrainian sides accused each other of using the incendiary munitions, as Ilovaisk was a contested territory.
Although some Ukrainian sources mistakenly reported the latest incident as white phosphorus, possibly because they were repeating the testimony of eyewitnesses, other Ukrainian sources said streaks over Popasnya were likely caused by 9M22S rockets.
The Ukrainian military's YouTube channel provided a video of the detonations over Popasnya, unlike the still photo seen in the Foreign Ministry’s “debunking” tweet.
A link in the Ukrainian military video’s description leads to a Ukrainian military information website that not only shows more details of the weapon being used over Popasnya, but also compares that footage with video of the incident in August 2014 near Illovaisk. The similarity is strong.
Regarding white phosphorus, it is a chemical that burns in contact with the air and creates thick smoke. Because of its incendiary properties and the fact that it is extremely difficult to extinguish, burning white phosphorus has in the past been used as a weapon against troops.
The United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons prohibits the indiscriminate use of incendiary weapons against civilians and against military targets located within a “concentration of civilians.” They are also banned from use on forests or other vegetation that are not being used to conceal military objectives.
Russia, Ukraine and the United States are among the more than 100 countries that are parties to the convention.