In grainy black-and-white video released on Friday, a Russian jet plane flies over Snake Island in the Black Sea, recently evacuated by Russian troops, and drops several bombs.
According to the Ukrainian army. the bombs contained white phosphorus.
Russia has deployed a wide range of weapons during its ongoing four-month military campaign in Ukraine, but some of the most controversial are incendiary weapons, including white phosphorus ammunition.
Arsonists are so feared not only for their indiscriminate nature – meaning they scatter over a wide area and are more likely to come into contact with civilians – but also for the horrific wounds they inflict.
But what is white phosphorus, what is it used for and what is the evidence that Russia used it in Ukraine?
What are incendiary weapons?
Composed of flammable substances that burn brightly, incendiary weapons are used to set enemy positions ablaze, create smoke screens to mask troop movements, and provide illumination in low light conditions.
But the category of “incendiary weapons” is broad. This can include weapons such as incendiary grenades and flamethrowers, as well as unguided bombs – called cluster munitions – filled with incendiary agents like napalm or white phosphorus.
What is white phosphorus?
A pungent, waxy substance, white phosphorus produces thick white smoke when it burns, making it effective in masking the movement of friendly forces, experts said.
But phosphorus is also infamous for the damage it can cause both to humans and to the area where it is deployed.
Igniting on contact with oxygen, phosphorus burns at 800 degrees Celsius, burning to the bone if it comes into contact with human skin.
“White phosphorus burns are unpleasant because they are not traditional fires, so if you add water it can actually make it worse,” said Brian Castner, war crimes investigator for Amnesty International Specialist. in bombs and bullets, at the Moscow Times.
Did Russia use white phosphorus in Ukraine?
While The Moscow Times was unable to verify Russia’s use of white phosphorus, Ukrainian officials – including President Volodymyr Zelensky – have repeatedly said the controversial arsonist was deployed.
“This morning, by the way, there were phosphorus bombs. Russian phosphorus bombs. Adults have been killed again and children have been killed again,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said during a virtual address to NATO leaders on March 25.
White phosphorus munitions were used by Russia against the city of Kramatorsk in March, according to a video shared online by Kyiv deputy police chief Oleksiy Biloshytskiy, who shows onlookers gathered around a strongly smoking ammunition.
“Another proof of the phosphorus bombs used by the Russian invaders. In Kramatorsk this time #War crimes“Biloshytskiy said in a tweet.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, regional governor of Donetsk said By late March, Russian forces were deploying phosphorus against entrenched Ukrainian defenders in the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol.
Russian officials have not responded to allegations that Moscow forces used phosphorus bombs in Ukraine, but instead accused Kyiv itself of using the substance.
“Desperate to contain the offensive of the troops of the Russian Armed Forces, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have started using ammunition filled with phosphorus in the suburbs of Kyiv,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor said in February. Konashenkov.
What incendiary weapons does Russia use in Ukraine?
“Russia has a range of incendiary munitions that they could use,” said Sam Cranny Evans, military analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
And since many incendiary weapons share similar qualities when deployed, it is likely that the use of other incendiary has sometimes been confused with white phosphorus.
One of the materials often confused with white phosphorus is thermite, Cranny Evans said.
Like white phosphorus, thermite burns at very high temperatures — but does not produce as much smoke and is only used to create fires.
Is the use of white phosphorus legal?
Due to its indiscriminate nature, the use of weapons containing white phosphorus is strictly regulated. However, they are not outright prohibited by international law.
Agents like phosphorus and thermite have legitimate wartime uses, but the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), signed by 113 countries including Russia and Ukraine, prohibits the use of incendiary weapons in civilian areas.
Under the convention, phosphorus can be used in open spaces to conceal military movements, but not to set fire to military targets if they are “in concentrations of civilians”.
But Russia has repeatedly ignored these conventions throughout the war in Ukraine, according to Amnesty International’s Castner.
“Russia destroys block by block and doesn’t care whether it’s a civilian or a military target,” he said.