On March 16, an airstrike hit a theater sheltering hundreds of civilians in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which remains under siege by Russian forces. The hit was initially reported by Mariupol’s city council on Telegram.
The Donetsk Regional Theater of Drama has a distinctive red roof, was not close to other buildings, and the words “children” were painted – in huge white letters on the pavement on two sides of the building – for pilots to see.
Exact casualties are unknown. Rescuers worked to pull out survivors, finding 130 by March 17. According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, however, up to 1,300 people had been sheltered in the building, and many may still be trapped under rubble.
Russia’s military and state media quickly began spinning the attack by weaving it into the false Kremlin narrative that the war on Ukraine is about fighting fascism and Nazis.
A story published by Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency quoted the Russian Defense Ministry stating that Ukrainian forces were responsible:
"According to the available reliable data, the militants of the Azov nationalist battalion committed a new bloody provocation by blowing up the theater building they had mined," the ministry was quoted as saying.
That is unsubstantiated and likely false.
The ministry provided no evidence, and the statement was contradicted by other Russian claims, including an assertion that Azov forces were sheltering in the building. In both Ukraine and Syria, the Kremlin also has a history of false claims that opponents conducted “false-flag” attacks on themselves or their own civilians to blame Russia.
On March 17, the Russian Embassy in the U.K. posted a video in which a purported “refugee” from Mariupol spoke on camera about the theater attack.
“Refugee from #Mariupol says militants from Azov nationalist battalion, while retreating, blew up the city drama theatre, where there were civilians, whom they used as human shield,” the tweet read. “Militants also deployed military equipment near bomb shelters and residential buildings.”
The woman is not identified, and Polygraph.info was unable to confidently trace her whereabouts using visual search or geolocation tools.
Russia has a history of using "actors" in Ukraine to sell stories about alleged atrocities. For example, after Ukrainian government forces retook the city of Slovyansk in 2014, the Russian state TV Channel One aired an interview with a "refugee" from the town, who claimed to have witnessed Ukrainian forces killing a woman and crucifying her young son. The story was quickly revealed to be false. Another famous "actress" was Maria Tsipko, who appeared in several different "roles" in Kremlin media interviews about Ukraine.
Given this well-established practice and the lack of any ID for the alleged "eyewitness" of the false flag attack in Mariupol, it would be reasonable to be skeptical.
The only evidence that any personnel from the Azov regiment were present at the theater comes from video that the regiment itself posted online on March 10. It shows a local escorting a regiment member around the theater’s premises, explaining that civilians were inside and discussing their needs. The video shows no evidence that a large number of fighters or any military equipment were at the theater.
It is not clear how the Azov fighters would have managed to set up explosives in the building where over 1,000 people were sheltering without being noticed or without anyone trying to escape.
Among other false or misleading justifications, Russian President Vladimir Putin has described the war as an effort to “de-nazify” Ukraine. That has allowed Kremlin propaganda to exploit the history of Ukraine’s Azov militia and other fringe right-wing groups even though they are a minuscule part of Ukraine’s democratic system.
Known formally as the Azov Special Operations Detachment, the group began as a paramilitary unit called the Azov Battalion in 2014 , when Ukraine had to hastily gather an army to defend against Russian-led fighting in its eastern Donbas region.
Although it was just one among dozens of volunteer militias, Azov garnered controversy over the far-right politics of its initial founders, the use of neo-Nazi symbolism in some of its insignia, and the anti-Semitic views of some members.
After the unit was integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine in 2015, its original commander, Andrii Biletsky, and many other early members left to start a far-right political party known as National Corps. Yet even when competing in a bloc with other nationalist parties in a 2019 parliamentary election, these far-right activists as a whole were unable to attract enough support to win a single seat in Ukraine’s parliament.
Since its integration, Azov regiment members have repeatedly denied being a far-right political unit, although they acknowledge that it includes individuals with such views.
While Russia provided no credible evidence that Azov was behind the theater attack, multiple news accounts reported on the strike, quoting Ukrainian officials who attributed the destruction to a Russian bombing.
According to the BBC:
“Dmytro Gurin, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and originally from Mariupol, said the shelter in the basement of the building withstood the attack, and that teams were trying to clear the rubble which covered the entrance to the site. ‘It looks like most of them have survived and are OK,’ he said.
“But the rescue efforts were tricky, he said, as Russia had continued to attack the area. ‘Shelling never stops and artillery never stops and airplanes are dropping bombs,’ he said, ‘so it's really difficult'."
According to the Daily Beast:
“The building, which is located in the heart of the city, is now 'now fully ruined', according to Ukrainian Minister of Affairs Dmytro Kuleba, who added in a statement about the attack that the Russians 'could not have not known this was a civilian shelter'.
“The Mariupol city council accused Russian forces of 'purposefully and cynically' destroying the theater, adding that a ‘plane dropped a bomb on a building where hundreds of peaceful Mariupol residents were hiding’.”
The Telegraph posted this interview with a witness to YouTube: