Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed on Tuesday that American private military contractors present in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region were preparing a “provocation using unknown chemical components”.
The state-run TASS news agency quoted Shoigu as saying at a Defense Ministry meeting in Moscow that over 120 contractors were present in the cities of Avdiivka and Krasny Liman for the “provocations”. He claimed that tanks filled with “unidentified chemical components” had been delivered to the cities, furnishing no supporting evidence.
Shoigu’s claims are a near-exact copy of a Russian disinformation campaign that has been carried out against the Syrian Civil Defense (better known as the White Helmets) since mid-2018, accusing the search-and-rescue group of involvement in “provocations” involving chemical weapons in rebel-held parts of Syria in a bid to legitimize Russian double-tap attacks against medical personnel. However, predictions made by the Russian and Syrian governments about imminent chemical attacks never came true, while Moscow continues to assist Damascus evade accountability for chemical warfare against civilian populations to this day.
The claims were flatly denied by the U.S. Department of Defense later on Tuesday, with Press Secretary John Kirby saying at an off-camera press briefing that Shoigu’s statements were “completely false”. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense described the accusations as deliberate misinformation on Wednesday, noting that there had been similar claims in 2018, adding that the claims by someone as senior as Shoigu should instead be taken seriously as preparations for a Russian provocation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was similarly shrill during the Tuesday meeting, claiming to military officials present that the United States was “at our doorstep” due to its presence in Ukraine. He added: “And they should understand that we have nowhere further to retreat to. Do they think we’ll just watch idly?”
Putin stated that Moscow would take “adequate military-technical response measures” in response to Western “unfriendly steps”. While he did not detail what the measures entailed, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov had claimed last week that Russia would redeploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe if the US and NATO did not agree to a Russian-proposed moratorium on their deployment using similar phrasing. However, the specter of a warning by the head of Ukrainian military intelligence about an imminent Russian incursion into Ukraine looms large over any Russian claims of “military responses”, even as Moscow continues to deny that it intends to do so.