On May 23, as the Russian military intensified attacks in Ukraine’s Donbas region and advanced towards the government-controlled territories in the area around Luhansk, Russia’s Defense Ministry issued a “warning.”
The ministry reportedly claimed Ukraine had mined buildings and hangars at a chemical plant in the city of Lysychansk, located on the Siverskyi Donets River, about 115 kilometers from Luhansk, an area of intense fighting.
Russia’s state-owned Sputnik news agency, citing the ministry, characterized it as “an attempt to organize another provocation” and claimed the Ukrainians were forcibly holding employees and locals underground.
Sputnik also cited the ministry as saying Ukrainian forces had fired rockets at Russian troops and pro-Russian militia of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, to incite retaliation “in order to further accuse them of destroying civilians and creating a man-made disaster in the city.”
The suggestion that Ukraine was attempting some sort of false-flag chemical attack is unsubstantiated, but it aligns with past Russian efforts to sow disinformation about possible use of biological or chemical weapons.
The Lysychansk plant produces industrial-grade gases that do not pose a chemical warfare threat.
According to the plant’s profile, the gases at the facility include acetylene, argon, breathing air, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, diving gases, dry ice, helium, oxygen and nitrogen.
“Industrial gases such as these can, of course, explode, as would any gas under pressure in a tank. But these are not toxic substances and do not combine to create chemical compounds that are highly toxic,” Dan Kaszeta, an associate fellow of the U.K.-based Royal United Services Institute, told Polygraph.info.
Kaszeta is also author of the book “Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents from Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia.”
One analyst said the ministry’s “warning” could be a sign that Russia is planning a false-flag operation involving chemical weapons. If so, “the West should treat it as an illegal assault with toxic chemicals,” said Margarita Assenova, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C.
It’s not the first time that Russia has introduced the idea that Ukraine might use chemical or biological weapons and then blame it on the Kremlin.
In March, after the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that Ukraine was planning a false-flag chemical attack, the United States warned that Russia may actually be preparing one.
“We should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false-flag operation using them. It’s a clear pattern, and no one should fall for it,” then-White House press secretary Jan Psaki said.
According to former Lithuanian Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene, who is now a member of the European Parliament, such claims are part of the disinformation war Moscow is waging in tandem with its military invasion.
“I would even call it a psychological operation or a weapon of mass brain destruction,” she said. “It is especially effectively used in Russian Federation against Russians themselves in so-called rear front, so that Russian people are poisoned with lies and support [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his ‘special operation’.”
Here is the Russian Defense Ministry's statement in full:
"In addition, in Lisichansk, Lugansk People's Republic, in the building and hangars of a rare gas plant, units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine placed cannon artillery and MLRS, mined containers with chemically hazardous substances, and employees of the plant and local residents were forcibly kept in underground structures.
"At the same time, the nationalists systematically fire at the positions of the Russian Armed Forces and the formations of the Luhansk People's Republic from the MLRS, thereby provoking them to retaliate in order to further accuse them of killing civilians and creating a man-made disaster in the city."
Clarification: This fact check has been updated to more specifically summarize the Russian false-flag claim and to include the entire Defense Ministry statement on the matter.