Was bombing of Mariupol theater staged by Ukrainian Azov extremists to trigger NATO intervention?

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by Max Blumenthal, The Gray Zone:

Testimony by evacuated Mariupol residents and warnings of a false flag attack undermine the Ukrainian government’s claims about a Russian bombing of a local theater sheltering civilians.

Western media have reported that Russia’s military deliberately attacked the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama theater in Mariupol, Ukraine, claiming that it was filled with civilians and marked with signs reading “children” on its grounds.

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The supposed bombing took place just as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to US Congress for a no fly zone, fueling the chorus for direct military confrontation with Russia and apparently inspiring President Joseph Biden to brand Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, as a “war criminal.”

A closer look reveals that local residents in Mariupol had warned three days before the March 16 incident that the theater would be the site of a false flag attack launched by the openly neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, which controlled the building and the territory around it.

Civilians that escaped the city through humanitarian corridors have testified that they were held by Azov as human shields in area, and that Azov fighters detonated parts of the theater as they retreated. Despite claims of a massive Russian airstrike that reduced the building to ashes, all civilians appear to have escaped with their lives.

Video of the attack on the theater remains unavailable at the time of publication; only photographs of the damaged structure can be viewed. The Russian Ministry of Defense has denied conducting an airstrike on the theater, asserting that the site had no military value and that no sorties were flown in the area on March 16.

While the Russian military operation in Ukraine has triggered a humanitarian crisis in Mariupol, it is clear that Russia gained nothing by targeting the theater, and virtually guaranteed itself another public relations blow by targeting a building filled with civilians – including ethnic Russians.

Azov, on the other hand, stood to benefit from a dramatic and grisly attack blamed on Russia. In full retreat all around Mariupol and facing the possibility of brutal treatment at the hands of a Russian military hellbent on “de-Nazification,” its fighters’ only hope seemed to lie in triggering direct NATO intervention.

The same sense of desperation informed Zelensky’s carefully scripted address to Congress, in which he invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech and played a heavily produced video depicting civilian suffering to make the case for a no fly zone.

By instigating Western public outrage over grisly Russian war crimes, Ukraine’s government is clearly aiming to generate enough pressure to overcome the Biden administration’s reluctance to directly confront Russia’s military.

But Kiev’s most emotionally potent allegation so far – that Russia deliberately bombed innocent children cowering inside a theater – has been undercut by testimonies from Mariupol residents and a widely viewed Telegram message explicitly foreshadowing a false flag attack on the building.

Children undergo military training at a summer camp run by the Azov Battalion in 2015

Azov Battalion fighters grow desperate in Mariupol, plea for Western military intervention

The strategic southeastern port city of Mariupol has been held by the Azov Battalion since 2014. Since its seizure, it has served as a political and military base for the ultra-nationalist paramilitary as it launched assaults on pro-Russian separatists in the breakaway republic of Donetsk.

Gathered from the ranks of extreme right activists that provided protesters with street muscle during the 2013-14 Euromaidan coup, the Azov Battalion has been formally incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard by the country’s Interior Ministry. It was founded by the openly fascist organizer Andriy Biletsky, who has vowed to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen.”

With the Nazi-inspired Wolfsangel symbol emblazoned on their uniforms and flags, Azov fighters make no secret of their ideological goals. Despite having been identified by the FBIUS Congress, and its own fighters as a neo-Nazi unit, and implicated in an array of sordid human rights violations, Azov has collaborated openly with US and Canadian military trainers.

Having accused Azov of seeking to exterminate the ethnic Russians of Donbas, Putin has marked its base in Mariupol as the front line of his stated campaign to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Since Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, the city become the site of ferocious urban fighting, with Russian special forces and Donetsk People’s Republic People’s Militia forces waging a block-by-block fight for control as artillery rained down on Azov positions.

On March 7, an Azov Battalion commander named Denis Prokopenko appeared on camera from Mariupol with an urgent message. Published on Azov’s official YouTube channel and delivered in English over the sound of occasional artillery launches, Prokopenko declared that the Russian military was carrying out a “genocide” against the population of Mariupol, which happens to be 40 percent ethnic Russian.

Prokopenko then demanded that Western nations “create a no fly zone over Ukraine support[ed] with the modern weapons.” It was clear from Prokopenko’s plea that Azov’s position was growing more dire by the day.

As Russia’s military rapidly degraded Azov positions throughout the second week of March 2022, Azov soldiers apparently directed elderly civilians as well as women and children into the wardrobe hall of the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater in Mariupol.

A video filmed inside the dimly lit building on March 11 featured a local man claiming that one thousand civilians were trapped inside and demanding a humanitarian corridor to allow them to escape. Only a small group of civilians could be seen in the video, however.

“I’m begging you to stop all this, give us the corridor to get people out, to get out women, kids, the wounded…” a bespectacled narrator (seen below) declared in the video.

Azov soldier (L) appears on March 11 with a local man outside the Mariupol theater

Since Russia launched its invasion, Azov Battalion soldiers have been filmed preventing civilians from leaving Mariupol – even forcing men out of their cars and brutally assaulting them while they attempted to break through the paramilitary’s checkpoints. If testimony from many Mariupol residents was to be believed, Azov had used many of them as human shields.

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