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Russia has again been accused of using phosphorus bombs in its war on Ukraine, this time in an attack on Snake Island, just a day after Moscow claimed to have retreated from the Black Sea outpost in a “gesture of goodwill”.
Located just 22 miles from the shores of Nato member Romania, the island – also known as Zmiinyi – had been held by Moscow since February, when it took on symbolic as well as strategic importance after a Ukrainian soldier’s defiant response to a Russian warship was adopted as a popular battle cry.
On Thursday, after Kyiv reported launching a barrage of strikes on the island, Russia’s foreign ministry said it had ceded the territory in conjunction with UN-brokered agreements “in order to organise humanitarian grain corridors”.
The following day, however, Russian Su-30 fighter jets launched from Crimea conducted two strikes on the island using phosphorus bombs, according to the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s army, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi.
“Everyone who talks about agreements with Russia should know these facts. The only thing in which the enemy is consistent is the constant ‘accuracy’ of the blows,” Mr Zaluzhnyi alleged, in a Facebook post containing footage purporting to show the attack.
The use of phosphorus – which can kill, maim and poison victims, burning through bone upon contact with flesh – is banned in heavily populated civilian areas under international law, but it is not considered a chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of using the weapons multiple times during Vladimir Putin’s invasion, including in attacks last month on the western city of Lutsk and Popasna in the east.
The latest allegation comes in a week that has seen Russia blamed for the deaths of scores of civilians in strikes near the Black Sea city of Odesa, at a shopping centre in Kremenchuk and in the capital Kyiv.
In an “intelligence update” on Saturday morning, the UK’s Ministry of Defence claimed that Russia was resorting to using air-launched anti-ship missiles for land attacks, “probably because of dwindling stockpiles of more accurate modern weapons”.
The ministry alleged that analysis of CCTV footage showed the missile that hit the shopping centre on Monday – killing 19 people – was “highly likely” to have been a Kh-32, an upgraded version of the Soviet-era Kh-22 Kitchen missile.
“Although the Kh-32 has several performance improvements over the Kh-22, it is still not optimised to accurately strike ground targets, especially in an urban environment. This greatly increases the likelihood of collateral damage when targeting built-up areas,” it said.
Furthermore, it warned that the Soviet-era missiles – which “are even less accurate and unsuitable for precision strikes” – were probably used in the Odesa region on Thursday and “have almost certainly repeatedly caused civilian casualties in recent weeks”.
The series of strikes on civilian buildings in recent days have prompted claims that Russia might be using the attacks to send a message to G7 and Nato leaders as they gathered at respective summits this week.
Russians press assault on eastern Ukrainian city
Mayor Vitali Klitschko suggested the strike on an apartment block in Kyiv, which killed six people, was “maybe a symbolic attack”, coming three days after EU leaders agreed to make Ukraine a candidate for membership.
The Kremenchuk attack came the following day as the annual G7 summit saw leaders meet in Germany to discuss further support for Ukraine.
“The Russians are humiliating the leaders of the West,” warned Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, a retired commander of US army forces in Europe.
Mr Putin and his officials deny that Russia hit residential areas and said the attack on the crowded shopping centre was directed at a nearby weapons depot.
Also high on the agenda of this week’s diplomatic meetings were discussions about the food crisis that has raised fears of famine in multiple countries as a result of Russia’s blockade in the Black Sea.
But despite Moscow’s claim to have left Snake Island in order to ease the crisis, military experts said that Russia’s retreat would not by itself be enough to unblock the ports.
“Does that mean that suddenly the grain flows? No it doesn’t really,” said Marcus Faulkner, a lecturer in War Studies at King’s College London, noting that ports were still mined and that Russia could still intercept cargo ships at sea.
And Mathieu Boulègue, an analyst at Chatham House, suggested Russia’s pullback might be part of a plan to strengthen its military forces elsewhere in the Black Sea, warning: “We should not be fooled by it... It might be short-term relief, but there will be long-term pain.”
Control of Snake Island means dominance over the land and, to some extent, the air security of southern Ukraine, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov suggested in May, as he explained why Kyiv would fight for the island “for as long as it takes”.
“Whoever controls the island can at any moment block the movement of civilian vessels in all directions to the south of Ukraine,” he said, adding: “This is a strategically important point in order to open trade sea routes, import weapons to us and exclude any possible military actions by Russia on the territory of the PMR [Moldova’s Transnistria region], from which they can attack the western part of Ukraine.”
On Saturday morning, the mayor of Mykolaiv urged residents to remain in shelters as he warned of “powerful explosions” in the southern city.
Hours earlier, the missile strike on an apartment block in a village close to the key port city of Odesa killed at least 21 people, authorities said, leading Germany to warn that Mr Putin must be “held to account”.
In his nightly video address on Friday, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky denounced the strikes as “conscious, deliberately targeted Russian terror and not some sort of error or a coincidental missile strike”.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov cited Mr Putin’s statement “that the Russian armed forces do not work with civilian targets”.
Additional reporting by agencies