Western officials have warned they fear Vladimir Putin could be plotting to use chemical weapons in Ukraine.
There is ‘serious concern’ the Russian president will order an ‘utterly horrific’ attack on the capital of Kyiv as his forces overcome the logistical issues suspected of delaying their advance.
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It comes after Putin’s troops were accused of launching a ‘petrifying war crime’ following an air strike on a maternity hospital during a ceasefire in the southern port city of Mariupol.
Boris Johnson described the attack as ‘depraved’ as he reiterated that Britain was exploring more support to help Ukraine defend against the aerial assaults.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly called for a no-fly zone over his country but Western leaders have resisted, saying it would put them in direct conflict with Russian pilots.
In an intelligence update on Wednesday, the UK Ministry of Defence said Russia had admitted using thermobaric vacuum bombs in Ukraine.
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There are fears that as Putin grows increasingly frustrated by Ukraine’s fierce resistance, he may resort to more extreme measures to achieve his aims.
The Telegraph reports that Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti claimed that 80 tons of ammonia was delivered by ‘Ukrainian nationalists’ to a village close to Kharkiv.
It quoted Russia’s ministry of defence spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov accusing Ukraine of ‘preparing a provocation with the use of poisonous substances … in order to then accuse Russia of using chemical weapons’.
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The Ministry of Defence has said Russia is ‘likely’ ramping up claims Ukraine is developing nuclear or biological weapons as ‘retrospective justification’ for its invasion.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, called it an ‘obvious ploy’ by the Kremlin to justify a ‘further premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attack on Ukraine’.
She said: Now that Russia has made these false claims… 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.’
Western officials believe the reports indicate that Putin may be ‘setting the scene’ for a ‘false flag’ operation.
One said: ‘I think we’ve got good reason to be concerned about possible use of non-conventional weapons, partly because of what we’ve seen has happened in other theatres.
‘As I’ve mentioned before, for example, what we’ve seen in Syria, partly because we’ve seen a bit of setting the scene for that in the false flag claims that are coming out, and other indications as well.
‘So it’s a serious concern for us.’
Meanwhile, sanctions designed to cut the Russian economy and government from international financial markets were also beginning to bite, with the Russian share market and rouble plunging and ordinary Russians rushing to hoard cash.
A second official warned of more repression of the people in Russia to come as Putin faces an extended campaign that he did not prepare his citizens or troops for.
They said: ‘This will end because of a combination of factors, one of them is the impact of sanctions, but it’s only one of them.
‘I think unfortunately the state’s response will not be to think about the best interests of ordinary Russians the state’s response will be to double down, to control information, to blame other people and try and see what they can do by the partnership they can do with China and a few other countries to offset the worst of it.’
The official said that Russians are starting to notice Western measures such as restrictions on paying with credit cards and Apple Pay, as chains such as Starbucks and McDonalds close, but that the full impact of sanctions is yet to come.
They added: ‘At the moment it’s more inconvenience rather than hardship and it’s a shock for Russians who didn’t expect the invasion and are suddenly seeing the sorts of things that they’ve got used to that are normal in most European countries are suddenly being taken away.’
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