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Ukrainian fighters said three people had suffered breathing problems in the besieged port city after a mysterious substance was dispersed from a Russian drone

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A Russian soldier patrols at a theatre in Mariupol on April 12, the day of a media trip organized by Russia's military. Ukrainian authorities are investigating unverified claims that the Russians used chemical weapons in this besieged Black Sea port.ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

The head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service said a report that Russia had used chemical weapons, while unverified, was an expected development now that Russia’s conventional offensive had stalled.

The first claimed use of an unspecified chemical agent emerged Monday from the besieged port city of Mariupol, where a unit of Ukrainian fighters said three people had suffered breathing problems after a mysterious substance was dispersed from a Russian drone. Though the symptoms were not described as severe, and no proof of the incident was offered, any use of prohibited chemical weapons would mark a significant escalation of Russia’s seven-week-old war against Ukraine.

Major-General Kyrylo Budanov said in an interview with The Globe and Mail that Russia had suffered a major “strategic failure” and that it was forced to withdraw from the territory it had captured around Kyiv and in the north of Ukraine. But he said Russian President Vladimir Putin had not abandoned his goal of trying to capture all of the country – and that Russia had already shown in Syria’s civil war, where it supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad, that it condones the use of chemical weapons.

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Major-General Kyrylo Budanov.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Russia’s security services have also been accused of using banned chemical agents to poison Kremlin critics in the past, including opposition leader Alexey Navalny and former KGB agent Sergey Skripal.

Maj.-Gen. Budanov, who heads Ukraine’s GUR intelligence service, said it was impossible to confirm what had happened in Mariupol since they couldn’t access the scene of the alleged incident. But he said the world should understand that chemical weapons could become a feature of the conflict. “The question ‘has Russia or hasn’t Russia used chemical weapons?’ is still open, but if the question is ‘can it use them?’ I would reply yes because the scale of the stupidity of the Russian authorities has no limits,” Maj.-Gen. Budanov said in an interview in Kyiv. “Why is everyone debating ‘is it possible or not?’ We’ve seen several years ago that it’s possible.”

Mariupol has been surrounded since the first days of Russia’s invasion, which began on Feb. 24. Large swathes of the city have been utterly destroyed. On Tuesday, Mayor Vadym Boychenko said the latest estimate was that 21,000 residents had been killed.

Despite the prolonged siege, pockets of the city remain under Ukrainian control. On Monday, hours before the alleged chemical attack in Mariupol, Eduard Basurin, a senior official with the “Donetsk People’s Republic” – a breakaway region of Ukraine that only the Kremlin recognizes as independent – called for “chemical troops” to “smoke out” Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol’s sprawling Azovstal steel mill, part of which is below ground level.

On Tuesday, the Azov Battalion – a far-right formation that has led the defence of Mariupol – said on its official Telegram social-media channel that the three victims are in “relatively satisfactory condition” despite suffering from shortness of breath, high blood pressure and other symptoms.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was not able to confirm whether chemical weapons had been used in Mariupol. “We’re in direct conversation with partners to try to determine what actually has happened. So this is a real concern,” he said in Washington. The global agency Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said in a statement that it was “monitoring closely the situation in Ukraine.”

Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said in televised remarks that there was a “theory” that phosphorous munitions had been used in Mariupol. Phosphorus weapons are not banned outright under international law – though their use against civilian targets is prohibited.

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The theatre in Mariupol is still in ruins after a March 16 airstrike in the Russian military's weeks-long effort to take the strategic city.

A Russian flag flies by a destroyed building in Mariupol; a woman and child pass Russian soldiers. Photos: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Maj.-Gen. Budanov said that after its withdrawal from the Kyiv region, he expects the Russian military to focus on trying to subdue Mariupol and capture Kharkiv, the largest city in eastern Ukraine – but that didn’t mean Mr. Putin had abandoned his aim of capturing the Ukrainian capital.

“They will concentrate their forces on the southeast and northeast directions, focusing their efforts on the city of Kharkiv. Is there still a threat to Kyiv and other northern regions of Ukraine? Unfortunately, this question remains,” he said.

“Russia’s aims have not changed. They were aiming to destroy the existence of this state and to conquer Ukraine – and this goal remains.”

Russia’s expectation that Ukraine would quickly capitulate appears to have been based on faulty intelligence about the strength of the Ukrainian military, as well as badly outdated ideas about the amount of support for Mr. Putin and Russia among the Ukrainian population. There have been widespread reports of a recent purge among Russia’s intelligence community that resulted in several senior officers being imprisoned.

Meanwhile, Maj.-Gen. Budanov and the GUR have bolstered their reputation by appearing prepared for every major move the Russian military has made so far in the conflict.

“Ukraine has destroyed the myth of the second strongest army in the world. Russia won’t recover from that for the next four years, from a military perspective,” said the short-haired 36-year-old, whom President Volodymyr Zelensky appointed two years ago as the GUR’s youngest intelligence chief.

Ukrainian forces have taken advantage of the situation to recapture lost territory and to stage counterattacks. On Tuesday, it appeared that Ukrainian forces may have staged a rare attack – or sabotage operation – inside Russian territory, as a rail line in the city of Belgorod was damaged by an apparent explosion.

Belgorod is a key rail hub being used by Russian troops who have been withdrawn from the Kyiv region and are being redeployed toward the front line in eastern Ukraine. Maj.-Gen. Budanov said he could “neither confirm nor deny” that the GUR had been involved in the apparent attack.

“I would like to underline that it is Russia that is carrying out acts of aggression towards Ukraine. I don’t understand why some people are surprised that some things are happening on the territory of the country that delivers that aggression.”

Russia’s pullback from the Kyiv region has allowed residents, and the world, to see the horrors inflicted by Russian forces during their month-long occupation of northern suburbs such as Bucha. Anatoliy Fedoruk, the mayor of Bucha, said Tuesday that authorities had so far found the bodies of 403 residents believed to have died as the result of Russian military actions. There have also been widespread reports of organized rape, torture and looting by Russian troops.

Speaking on Tuesday after a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Mr. Putin said reports of atrocities committed in Bucha and other parts of Ukraine were “fake.” He described Russia’s 48-day-old war against Ukraine – which the Kremlin calls a “special military operation” – as “noble,” despite the escalating death toll and the mounting damage to the Russian economy caused by Western sanctions.

Maj.-Gen. Budanov said it was unclear whether the behaviour of Russian troops in Bucha and elsewhere had been ordered by their commanders or was the result of poor discipline. He said that while Mr. Putin was unlikely to have ordered the specific acts, the President was definitely aware of them by now. “After all, the world has been shown these things. He definitely knows. And what has he done? Has he stopped it? No, he didn’t. This proves that he is a war criminal and all his troops who are doing these things are war criminals.”

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