On March 9, a Russian airstrike decimated a maternity ward in Ukraine’s besieged port city of Mariupol.
Three people were among the dead, including a child, while 17 more were wounded, the Associated Press reported, citing Ukrainian officials. Video from the scene showed an injured pregnant woman being carried away.
As Russia continues to pummel the key port city, Ukraine’s foreign minister accused Russia of holding 400,000 people there hostage.
Ukrainian President Volodymor Zelensky called the hospital attack “a direct strike” by Russian troops: “People, children are under the wreckage. Atrocity! How much longer will the world be an accomplice ignoring terror?” He called out the West for not setting up a no-fly zone to halt Russian bombardments.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mocked outcries over the attack, claiming without evidence that the Russian military had targeted “radicals.”
“We have heard pathetic rhetoric about some atrocities allegedly committed by the Russian Army many times. On March 7, three days ago, our delegation presented evidence at a session of the U.N. Security Council that the maternity hospital in question had long been seized by the Azov battalion and other radicals,” Lavrov said.
“All expectant mothers, all nurses and other personnel had been driven out. It was a base of the ultra-radical battalion Azov. These facts were disclosed three days ago. It is up to you to make conclusions as to how the world public is being brainwashed.”
There is no evidence the maternity hospital was taken over by radicals. There is a wealth of video and photographic evidence that pregnant women and nurses were present in the hospital at the time of the Russian attack.
During a United Nations Security meeting on March 7, Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, claimed that Russian forces were not targeting civilians or civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. He said, without evidence, that “neo-Nazis,” not Russian soldiers, were bombing civilians and using them as human shields.
“We note that Ukrainian radicals, day by day, are showing their true face more clearly. The local inhabitants said that they forced out the staff of a maternity clinic, and then put a firing site in that clinic. They also completely destroyed one of the nursery schools in the city,” Nebenzya said.
Just before the attack, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova made the same claim: “Ukrainian nationalists kicked out all the patients and staff and set up firing points there,” she said.
Some journalists and analysts have taken that as evidence Russia was announcing the attack on the hospital in advance.
While Nebenzya and Zakharova offered no evidence that Ukrainian “nationalists” were had set up military positions in the hospital, news reports made clear after the attack that the hospital was still in use for patients.
In addition to the pregnant woman being carried away on a makeshift stretcher, videos show another injured pregnant woman holding a child and weeping, and a member of the hospital's staff receiving first aid.
Russia has long used the existence of far-right groups in Ukraine to justify its illegal invasions under the pretext that it is “de-nazifying” the country.
Russian propaganda frequently centers on groups like the Azov battalion, which often features in unfounded conspiracy theories. The Azov Battalion is a far-right group that formed as a voluntary militia in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and clandestine invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
The group was later incorporated into Ukraine’s national guard.
As noted by the fact-checking site Snopes, equating the Azov battalion with Ukraine’s “overall defense or government is false, because it makes up a small percentage of Ukraine’s total military defense, and Ukraine’s national government system is a democracy.”
Ukraine's democratic bona fides are contested. The Washington, D.C., non-profit Freedom House has categorized Ukraine as a “Transitional or Hybrid Regime” –– one that has made an "incomplete transition from an authoritarian regime to a democratic one."
As Polygraph.info has reported, however, the “Nazi” narrative has been a key part of the Russian disinformation campaign to justify the invasion. Yet, Ukraine’s far-right has consistently failed to gain a political foothold there.
For example, all of Ukraine’s far-right forces united for the 2019 parliamentary elections, but still only won 2.15% of the vote — not enough to gain a single seat. David Klion, an editor at Jewish Currents magazine, argues that far-right parties have seen greater electoral success in other European countries, including Russia.
President Zelenskyy is Jewish; his great-grandfather and three great-uncles were killed in the Nazi Holocaust during WWII.
Zelenskyy said that intentionally targeting a maternity hospital is "the final proof that what is happening is genocide of Ukrainians.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied that Ukraine has “real statehood,” calling it part of Russia’s “own history, culture, spiritual space.”
Analysts at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C, think tank, and others say that Putin’s “de-nazificiation” is a guise for “extinguishing Ukrainian statehood and eradicating all traces of a separate Ukrainian identity.”
On March 10, Lavrov continued to deny that Russia had even attacked Ukraine. Russia disinformation consistently refuses to admit "invading" the country, instead claiming its attacks are a “special military operation.”
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has recorded 1,506 civilian casualties in Ukraine — 549 killed and 957 injured — since Russia invaded on February 24. These figures are widely regarded to be an underestimate; moreover, thousands of combatants – no one knows exactly how many – also have died.