On April 4, Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the Russian State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, joined other Russian officials in denying that Russian forces were guilty of atrocities against civilians in the town of Bucha, Ukraine.
Slutsky lashed out at Britain, which holds the presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), after Russia failed to get a meeting about its charge that Ukraine was the party responsible for “provocation” in Bucha.
Slutsky claimed that images of dead civilians in areas from which Russian soldiers had withdrawn were “staged.”
“The so-called evidence of mass death of local civilians emerged only after agents of the Ukrainian security service SBU entered the city. Isn’t this reminiscent of the White Helmets’ faked chemical attacks in Syria’s Douma and the Western countries subsequent refusal to probe into the real details of what happened?” Slutsky said.
That is false.
In addition to his Duma post, Slutsky is a senior member of Russia's negotiating team with Ukraine. In 2014, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on him in connection with Russia’s forced annexation of Crimea.
Slutsky referenced the White Helmets because of Russia’s long propaganda war against the group, particularly the co-founder James Le Mesurier, a British veteran. Le Mesurier was found dead outside his apartment in Turkey in 2019. Turkish police said they suspected he had committed suicide.
The White Helmets, or Syrian Civil Defense, is a first-responder team that has focused on both search and rescue and documenting war crimes during the Syrian civil war. In 2017, a documentary on the White Helmets won an Oscar.
Syrian and Russian media have nonetheless demonized the group, accusing its members of staging chemicals weapons attacks and collaborating with terrorist groups. Syrian government forces have directly targeted the group, and members of its staff have been killed in several attacks.
The White Helmets played a role in both conducting search and rescue and documenting the chemical attack on Douma. The April 2018 incident occurred during the final standoff between Syrian President Basar Assad's regime and rebel groups near the capital, Damascus.
Three rebel groups controlled separate enclaves in eastern Ghouta's Rif Dimashq governorate. Rebels in two of the enclaves were facing defeat and negotiated evacuation, but Jaish al-Islam, which controlled Douma, refused to relinquish control of the city.
After a round of failed negotiations, Syrian war planes bombarded Douma. The Violations Documentation Center (VDC), an independent monitoring gruop, reported on two incidents in which bombs containing toxic substances were dropped. Two yellow cylinders carrying chemical gas were found on a building’s rooftop and in a bedroom in a different building.
The White Helmets issued a statement demanding a ceasefire and called for an investigation by teams from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a treaty group.
Reporters from the Russian media outlets RT and TV Zvezda immediately claimed the attacks were staged and that the cylinders had been carried to the locations, not dropped by aircraft from Syrian regime-controlled airspace.
Forensic Architecture, an organization that uses architectural techniques to investigate human rights violations, said that reconstructed models from the two sites supported the conclusion that the cylinders were dropped from the air.
A separate investigation by The New York Times in 2018 also found that the Assad regime was responsible for the chemical attack in Douma. According to the Times, which obtained a leaked United Nations report, 49 people died, including 11 children, from exposure to a chlorine-like substance.
The Syrian regime denied the accusations that it had used chemicals, and Russia has consistently alleged the Douma attack was “staged.”
Backing its ally, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared a few days after the incident: “Irrefutable evidence that this was yet another attack, staged with the participation of special services of one state that is striving to be at the forefront of the Russophobic campaign.”
An OPCW fact-finding mission investigated the allegations that Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons during the country’s civil war. In 2019, the mission issued its final report regarding the chemical attack on Douma. It stated that reactive chlorine, which does not exist in nature, was found in samples taken at the site.
The mission has also investigated two locations where, according to the Syrian regime, rebels produced chemical weapons. The mission said it did not find raw materials or equipment at these locations that could be used to make chemicals weapons – specifically, nerve gas.
“There was no indication of either facility being involved in the production of chemical warfare agents or toxic chemicals to be used as weapons,” the mission said.
In a briefing to the United Nations on March 10, the U.N.’s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, said the OPCW had not received an explanation from the Syrian government authorities on a number of issues, including undeclared types and amounts of a nerve agent found at a former chemical weapons production facility and the unauthorized movement and destruction of two cylinders linked to the Douma attack.
“As has been stressed repeatedly, due to the identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies that remain unresolved […] at this stage, Syria’s declaration cannot be considered accurate and complete in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention,” Nakamitsu said.
At the briefing, Russia accused the OPCW of bias.
“OPCW’s work has been politicized, and its illegitimate Investigation and Identification Group repeatedly reaches deliberately biased conclusions,” said Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s U.N. ambassador.
In December 2018, Britain’s The Guardian newspaper reported that the Russian government was supporting conspiracy theorists, anti-imperialist activists and internet trolls to spread misinformation about the White Helmets.
According to the newspaper, Russia’s campaign against the White Helmets began after Moscow in 2015 intervened militarily to support Assad’s government.
“Gaming the social media algorithms with a flood of content, boosted by bots, sock-puppet accounts and a network of agitators, propagandists are able to create a ‘manufactured consensus’ that gives legitimacy to fringe views,” The Guardian wrote.
Although he remains a powerful figure, Slutsky’s political star has been tarnished with allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct.
In 2018, four female journalists covering the Duma, which is the lower chamber of Russia's legislative assembly, accused him of sexual harassment. The Duma’s ethics commission, however, later said it found no evidence of “inappropriate behavior.”
A Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) investigation in 2021 found that Slutsky, who had declared an annual income of $77,000, lived a lavish lifestyle well beyond his means. (RFE/RL is one of several U.S.-funded news networks including the VOA.)
Citing data gleaned from the social media accounts of Slutsky’s 11-year-old daughter and other sources, RFE/RL reported that she attends an $88,000-a-year private school in Switzerland and that the family spends time in a posh villa in a Turkish resort.
In 2018, Kremlin opposition figure Aleksey Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation documented that Slutsky’s wife bought a Bentley Mulsanne, a car that sells for more than $300,000.