Ukraine Rebels, Russia Claim Imminent Chemical 'Disaster' As U.S. Urges Calm

The leader of the separatist forces in Ukraine has echoed a Russian claim that U.S. mercenaries are preparing to use chemical weapons in the eastern Donbas conflict zone, as Washington D.C. accused Moscow of spreading dangerous disinformation.

Denis Pushilin, the head of the breakaway Donetsk People's Republic which is being backed by Russia in its war with Kyiv, told the the Govorit Moskva radio station on Tuesday that Ukrainian forces and their American partners were threatening a "man-made humanitarian disaster," according to Russia's state-backed Tass news agency.

"The Armed Forces of Ukraine continue their military build up next to the line of contact," Pushilin told Govorit Moskva. "Ukraine is persistently demonstrating its reluctance to engage in a dialogue with us."

"The analysis of the situation along the line of contact demonstrates that the adversary is getting ready for new provocations," Pushilin claimed.

"We call upon guarantor nations of the Minsk Agreements, and international organizations working to promote reconciliation in Donbas, to prevent the use of chemical weapons against civilians."

"Ukraine is attempting to stage a man-made humanitarian disaster on our soil, which may trigger unpredictable consequences for the entire world," he added.

Kyiv, Pushilin said, "is prepared to sacrifice the lives not only of residents of the people's republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, but also of its own citizens, living in Kyiv-controlled areas."

Pushilin was playing off claims made by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Tuesday that some 120 American mercenaries—who have allegedly been training Ukrainian troops—had arrived in the Kyiv-controlled Donbas towns close to the front lines.

"Tanks with unidentified chemical components have been delivered to the cities of Avdiivka and Krasny Lyman for the completion of the provocations," said Shoigu, offering no supporting evidence.

The claim prompted rebuttals by the U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price, who wrote on Twitter: "Contrary to statements from the Russian Defense Minister, Russia and its proxies are responsible for escalating tensions, not Ukraine or the United States.

"We call on Russia to stop using false, inflammatory rhetoric and take meaningful steps to de-escalate tensions to provide a positive atmosphere for discussions."

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby also dismissed Shoigu's allegations. "Those statements by Minister Shoigu are completely false," Kirby told a press briefing on Tuesday.

Asked whether Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had spoken with his Russian counterpart, Kirby responded: "He has not talked to Minister Shoigu and I don't have anything on his calendar to announce today."

Russian officials, proxies and media organizations have encouraged reports of supposed imminent chemical weapons attacks in Syria in recent years.

Such reports became an important part of Russian and Russian-aligned disinformation in Syria, particularly after regime forces there—commanded by President Bashar al-Assad and backed by Russia—launched chemical weapons attacks on opposition forces and civilians.

Russian officials and media organizations have consistently denied the involvement of Assad or his forces in such incidents, instead framing chemical weapons attacks as false flag operations conducted by opposition forces.

Some 100,000 Russian troops remain deployed along Ukraine's borders, with concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin might order an invasion in the new year. Moscow and Kyiv remain at odds over the former's annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, and for backing separatist forces in the east of the country.

Years of peace talks have failed to end the fighting. With Ukraine pivoting West, the Kremlin is now demanding guarantees that Kyiv will not be allowed to join the NATO alliance.

On Tuesday, Putin said Russia will "undertake proportionate military-technical countermeasures and will respond firmly to unfriendly steps" if NATO expands further eastwards.

Ukraine soldiers on front line Marinka Donbas
Ukrainian soldiers talk outside a building near the front line on December 8, 2021 in Marinka, Ukraine. The leader of the separatist forces in Ukraine has echoed a Russian claim that U.S. mercenaries are preparing to use chemical weapons in the Donbas conflict zone. Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images