Vladimir Putin is plotting to use chemical weapons in Ukraine, Western officials fear, after his air force bombed a maternity hospital in a “depraved attack” that shocked the world.
There is now “serious concern” that the Russian president will order an “utterly horrific” attack using chemical or biological weapons, as Moscow ramped up allegations that Kyiv is itself planning to deploy them in the battlefield.
It comes after the Russian leader was accused of “crossing the line of humanity” following an air strike on a children’s hospital during a ceasefire in the besieged city of Mariupol.
Boris Johnson described the attack on Hospital No 3 as “depraved” and said Britain would step up its supplies of weapons to the Ukrainian armed forces.
Pregnant women were carried out of the building on stretchers, while others looked on in a daze at the destroyed hospital building and a huge bomb crater in the grounds outside.
A video filmed inside the hospital showed wards reduced to wreckage, walls collapsed, rubble covering medical equipment and shattered glass everywhere. The footage showed glimpses of a cot, children’s beds and toys covered in ash and debris.
Women, children and medics were initially said to be trapped under the rubble. Dmitry Gurin, a Ukrainian MP, told the BBC that there were “a lot of dead and wounded women”, adding: “We don’t know about children and newborns yet.”
Local officials later reported that 17 staff had been injured, but that no one had been killed. Most of the pregnant women were hiding in the basement at the time of the strike. The toll, officials said, could rise.
Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, called on the West to “close the skies” after the strike, reigniting demands to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine and send its air force more fighter jets.
“You have the power but you seem to be losing the humanity,” he said.
Mr Zelensky Tweeted:
Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, called the attack on the hospital “absolutely abhorrent, reckless and appalling”. However, she and Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, rejected Mr Zelensky’s renewed calls for a Nato-patrolled no-fly zone over his country.
Ms Truss said: “The best way to help protect the skies is through anti-air weaponry which the UK is now going to be supplying.”
Mr Blinken said a no-fly zone would put US pilots in “direct conflict” with Russia, adding: “Our goal is to end the war, not to expand it.”
Vadim Boichenko, the mayor of Mariupol, said the air strike was a “meaningless act of evil”.
“How can it be explained? How can it be described? It can’t. It is cynicism and genocide.”
The Ministry of Defence said on Wednesday that Russia had admitted firing a thermobaric weapons system in Ukraine. However, a Pentagon spokesman said it had “no indication” that the devastating bombs had been used so far.
Hours before the bombing, Maria Zakharova – the Russian foreign ministry spokesman – claimed Ukrainian fighters had ejected patients and staff from the maternity hospital before setting up firing positions there, without providing evidence.
On Wednesday, the state-owned Russian news agency RIA Novosti claimed that 80 tons of ammonia was delivered to the village of Zolochiv, near Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv, by “Ukrainian nationalists”.
The report quoted Major General Igor Konashenkov, the Russian defence ministry spokesman, alleging that Ukraine was “preparing a provocation with the use of poisonous substances … in order to then accuse Russia of using chemical weapons”.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said recent Russian claims that the US is developing biological weapons in Ukraine were “an obvious ploy” by Moscow to try to justify its “premeditated and unprovoked” attack on the country.
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 analysts believe the reports indicate that Putin is preparing to order the use of chemical weapons in his most lethal “false flag” operation to date.
One Western official 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, for example what we’ve seen in Syria, and 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.”
Wednesday’s claims about ammonia follow allegations from Russia earlier this week that it had found evidence of Ukraine “concealing traces of a military biological programme implemented with funding from the United States”.
Ms Zakharova said Ukraine had been secretly developing “highly hazardous pathogens of plague, anthrax, rabbit-fever, cholera and other lethal diseases”.
The Ministry of Defence has also said there had been a notable “intensification of Russian accusations that Ukraine is developing nuclear or biological weapons” since the invasion began.
There are parallels with Moscow’s groundwork ahead of a chemical attack on Douma in Syria, when Russia used its state media to disseminate allegations that Syrian rebels were preparing chemical weapons with the help of the West.
Bob Seely, a Tory MP and long-term Russia-watcher, said such an attack in Ukraine would be disastrous.
He said: “You can’t live in the Kyiv and Kharkiv metros when you have chemical weapons being used, because chlorine and sarin are heavier than air.
“They will seep and flow like water into basements and suffocate those people. Putin’s risk threshold is higher. His willingness to endure civilian and military casualties is almost out of our comprehension.”
The UK has already sent Stinger anti-aircraft weapons and Nlaw anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. On Wednesday, the Government announced it would also be sending supersonic Starstreak surface-to-air missiles – the most advanced short-range anti-aircraft system in the world.
Mr Johnson said: “There are few things more depraved than targeting the vulnerable and defenceless.
“The UK is exploring more support for Ukraine to defend against air strikes and we will hold Putin to account for his terrible crimes.”
On Wednesday, Mr Johnson said Mr Zelensky had “earned the admiration and love of the British people”.
The Prime Minister praised Mr Zelensky for his “deeply moving address to the House of Commons” the previous day and committed to a further tightening of sanctions on Russia, a Downing Street spokesman said.
Mr Zelensky earlier accused the US and Poland of “playing ping pong” with the lives of Ukrainians, after the apparent collapse of a proposal to send MiG fighter jets to his air force.
A Polish proposal to hand its MiG-29 fighter jets to a US military base in Germany, with the expectation they would be handed to Ukrainian pilots, was dismissed in Washington.
Allies fear that such a move would risk provoking a wider conflict. The Western official said that while the short-range weapons currently being sent to Ukraine could only ever be used for defence, fighter jets were a different proposition – as they had the capability to attack long-range targets.
After rejecting Warsaw’s offer to send its jets to Ukraine via the US, on Wednesday the Pentagon said it would oppose any Nato plan to deliver fighter planes. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s spokesman, said it was too “high risk”.
Meanwhile, Maksym Dotsenko, the head of the Ukrainian Red Cross, said the Russian attack on the maternity and paediatric hospital in Mariupol could cause the “complete collapse” of children’s medicine in the city.
Dr Oleksandra Shcherbet, a neurologist currently based in Lutsk who is helping to coordinate the distribution of supplies across the country, told The Telegraph: “The Russians are bombing children’s centres and maternity hospitals? It’s hard to believe. It’s horrible.”
Pavlo Kyrylenko, a local government official, said the exact toll from the strike could take time to ascertain.
He said the attack was carried out during an agreed ceasefire period to allow the safe passage of civilians. He said Russia had “not only crossed the border of unacceptable relations between states and peoples” but had “crossed the line of humanity”. He added: “Stop calling yourselves human beings.”
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr Zelensky, said: “Women in labour and children are under the wreckage. Instead of new lives – deaths.
“Isn’t this enough to close Ukranian air space? Isn’t it an argument to stop the killing?”
Sergei Orlov, the deputy mayor of Mariupol, told the BBC World Service: “We don’t understand how it is possible in modern life to bomb a children’s hospital.”
He warned there was a genocide taking place, with 1,170 people killed, with 47 of them buried on Wednesday alone in a mass grave.
There is no water, heat, power or gas, meaning locals are forced to eat snow to slake their thirst and burn wood to keep warm. “It’s medieval,” Mr Orlov said.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian foreign minister warned that almost 3,000 babies in Mariupol could die as they were running out of food and medicine.
Dmytro Kuleba said that more than 400,000 people were being held “hostage” in the south-eastern port city, unable to access humanitarian aid or be safely evacuated.
“I urge the world to act,” he said. “Force Russia to stop its barbaric war on civilians and babies.”