Russia, Ukraine, and the Chemical Conundrum: Exploring the Use of White Phosphorus in Bakhmut
Bakhmut, an eastern Ukrainian city, has been enduring the consequences of Russia's aggression since the outset of the Ukraine conflict in February 2022. Once known as Artemivsk, it retained this name until 2016, encompassing both the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. During the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian occupiers laid claim to Bakhmut as part of their territorial ambitions. However, the Ukrainian government managed to retake the city in mid-2014. Russia's interest in Bakhmut stems from its strategic geography, which enables them to disrupt Ukraine's supply lines. Moreover, gaining control over this city provides a gateway for Russian forces to reach several important eastern Ukrainian towns.
Bakhmut has once again made headlines as Kyiv accuses Moscow of launching phosphorus munitions on the city (Newsweek, May 5, 2023). Russia has persistently attempted to gain control over Bakhmut, but observers believe their efforts have failed to establish effective control. This may explain why Russia resorted to using white phosphorus bombs. The Ukrainian military has released drone footage of burning buildings and white phosphorus raining down on the city. The exact date of the attack remains unknown, and there has been no response from the Russian side regarding Kyiv's claims.
While phosphorus weapons are technically not prohibited, their utilization in civilian areas is considered a war crime under the Geneva Convention. While using phosphorus for smoke screens or illumination is justifiable, deploying it to set objects on fire or inflict burn injuries in civilian areas crosses the line. This is not the first instance where Russian forces have been accused of employing such weapons. Ukrainian agencies made a similar claim during the battle for Mariupol in April 2022 (New York Times, July 2, 2022; Newsweek, May 18, 2022). White phosphorus, also known as "WP" or "Willy Pete" in military terminology, was utilized during both World Wars.
The use of substances like phosphorus to create smoke screens for concealing troop movements or illuminating the battlefield at night for target identification is not uncommon during the war. White phosphorus, a pungent wax-like substance, produces dense white smoke when ignited. The burns caused by white phosphorus are distinct and more severe than traditional fire burns. It is important not to use water for such burns. When in contact with oxygen, phosphorus ignites at 800 degrees Celsius. The impact of this material extends beyond humans and affects the areas where it is dispersed.
In 1981, the former Soviet Union signed the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCCW), which prohibits the use of incendiary weapons in civilian areas. However, white phosphorus is not explicitly covered by this treaty, as its primary purpose is believed to be the creation of a smokescreen. As a successor state, Russia is also bound by this convention. Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons addresses Incendiary Weapons, defining them as weapons designed to set fire to objects or burn individuals through the action of flame or heat, such as napalm and flamethrowers. Using such weapons against civilians is strictly prohibited, and any military target situated among a concentration of civilians is off-limits for air-delivered incendiary weapons. Article 35 of Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions also outlaws any weapon that inflicts unnecessary or excessive suffering.
If Ukraine's claim regarding Russia's use of white phosphorus is accurate, it is a grave matter that warrants attention in the appropriate international forum. Russia and Ukraine are signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), considered one of the most successful disarmament treaty mechanisms. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), responsible for implementing the CWC, expressed deep concern over reports of Russia's use of white phosphorus (some equating it with chemical weapons) in Ukraine, particularly in the Ukrainian port of Mariupol in April 2022.
To avoid legal entanglements concerning the violation of international norms or treaty mechanisms regarding the use of chemicals in warfare, Russia may be deliberately utilizing substances like white phosphorus. They understand that such chemicals are not explicitly banned, enabling them to exploit the limitations of existing rules and structures. Fortunately, the global community has an opportunity to discuss this issue thoroughly. The Fifth Review Conference of CWC, scheduled in The Hague (Netherlands) from May 15 to 19, 2023, includes a draft agenda incorporating a general debate under agenda item eight. State parties must engage in discussions on this subject during the conference, ensuring that no state can take advantage of legal loopholes regarding the use of chemicals in war.
- "What are white phosphorus bombs? All we know about incendiary weapons Russia accused of using in Ukraine", The Independent, May 06, 2023, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/white-phosphorus-weapons-burns-russia-ukraine-b2333819.html.
- Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons which may be deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to have Indiscriminate Effects (with Protocols I, II and III), Geneva, October 10, 1980, https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=IND&mtdsg_no=XXVI-2&chapter=26&clang=_en