Why are Russian proxy forces restarting a chemical factory in Horlivka?

21 January 2022, 12:23 PM

A leak has been reported at a chemical factory in Horlivka, a town in the non-government-controlled part of Donetsk Oblast. Ukraine's Ministry of Defense has warned that the incident might be a Russian provocation used to justify further military aggression against Ukraine. 

The chemical factory in Horlivka, named Stirol, had been largely abandoned until the end of 2021. However, on Jan. 14, Russian proxy forces brought a number of barrels filled with ammonia to the plant. Ukraine's Military Intelligence reported on Jan. 15 that the barrels were leaking, and pointed to the potential risk of a man-made environmental catastrophe, and that this leak could be used by Russia as a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine.

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This is all highly suspicious, given that a month ago Russia's Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu warned of potential “chemical provocations” in Ukraine – although his claims were completely unsubstantiated.

Ammonia is a highly toxic substance, produced from natural gas and used to manufacture nitrogen-based mineral fertilizers. An ammonia leak into the air can cause severe poisoning and even death. Ammonia derivatives like saltpeter and carbamide are extremely explosive. These compounds triggered the massive August 2020 explosion and fire in Beirut, Lebanon.

So how did ammonia turn up in Horlivka again?

How it all began

Shoygu made his claim that Ukraine was preparing chemical provocations in the Donbas, aided by foreign mercenaries, on Dec. 21.

He alleged that there were more than 120 U.S. mercenaries in the eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka and the village of Priazovske in Donetsk Oblast. Shoygu claimed the mercenaries had allegedly set up fire positions in residential and infrastructure buildings, and were engaged in training Ukrainians for combat. Shoygu also claimed containers with unknown chemical substances had been delivered to Avdiivka and Chervonyi Lyman, both in Donetsk region.

There is absolutely no evidence to back up any of Shoygu’s allegations. Ukraine's defense and foreign ministries labelled Shoygu's accusations as disinformation, while the U.S. Department of State called upon the Kremlin to stop using provocative rhetoric.

Then, on Jan. 14, when the alleged chemical leak occurred at the Stirol factory, Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor to the U.S. President, said that Russia was planning to invade Ukraine any time between mid-January and mid-February 2022. According to Sullivan, the Kremlin intended to carry out a large-scale false flag operation to shift the blame to the Ukrainian military and justify further military aggression against Ukraine.

Russian proxy forces in the Donbas did not confirm whether a chemical leak had occurred and called Ukrainian allegations to be simply “speculation.”

Meanwhile, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has been looking into the alleged chemical leak. According to an OSCE report, the mission has been attempting to verify this information, and will continue to do so.

Why would Russian proxy forces restart the factory? 

The Stirol factory officially closed down on May 4, 2014 due to “the critical situation in Horlivka and Donetsk region,” referring to the initial phases of the Russian hybrid war against Ukraine, according to factory representatives. Stirol is the only major Ukrainian chemical factory now entirely in the hands of Russian proxy forces.

The factory's administration claimed to have ceased production of ammonia and its derivatives, carbamide and saltpeter, and to have completely emptied their ammonia storages.

Group DF, a company belonging to Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, which previously owned Stirol, confirmed the factory’s statement. According to Group DF Communications Director Oleh Aristarkhov, in 2014, all of the factory’s warehouses were emptied. Group DF says that they have not had control of the factory since then.

However, in 2018 Ukraine's Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories reported that there was still a large amount of ammonia stored at the Stirol factory, making it a major hazard for the neighboring areas and their residents. At the same time, satellite footage did not spot any heat signatures from the factory, indicating that it was no longer in use. Local residents posted on social media that Russian proxy forces were regularly taking out truckloads of scrap metal from the factory. Factory equipment was sawed apart to be looted.

Yet on Nov. 18, 2021 Russian proxy force-controlled media reported that the Stirol factory was to be restarted. Russian proxy fighter Vasiliy Aharkov is now the self-proclaimed director of the chemical factory. He claimed that the factory's new administration had drafted a plan on how to restart parts of the factory.

It was allegedly restarted the same day. The factory is now supposed to produce polyethylene foil, disposable tableware, and paint. Russian proxy forces insisted that the factory no longer produced mineral fertilizers, although Stirol used to specialize in their production.

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The self-proclaimed “Minister of Industry and Trade” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” puppet state, Sergey Vlasov, claimed that Russian proxy forces intended to restore the factory to its full capacity. No clear timeline was announced.

Ammonia is a raw material used to produce carbamide and saltepeter.

It is not needed to manufacture the products announced by the Russian proxy militants. It can either be produced at the factory from natural gas, or be imported. Prior to the losing control of the factory, Group DF would import ammonia from Russia in light of gas price spikes in Ukraine.

The question remains, then: Why did the Russians bring containers with ammonia to Horlivka on Jan. 13?

Why is ammonia at Stirol dangerous?

A man-made environmental disaster occurred at the Stirol plant in 2013, before the Donbas was occupied by Russian proxy forces, with 600 kilograms of ammonia leaking into the air, killing six factory workers and injuring 25.

When experts later examined the factory, they found a 10-centimeter-wide crack that caused the leak. Numerous potential causes were voiced, from health and safety violations to plain negligence. Finally, the investigators concluded that the disaster had been caused by disrepair and corrosion in the ammonia pipes.

Smaller accidents were more frequent at Stirol, former Horlivka councilor Yuri Zhuk told NV.

Before launching his career as a politician, Zhuk worked at the factory, like many other local residents. Zhuk informed NV that serious issues seemed to crop up at the factory every six months.  Occasionally, this even resulted in deaths – but the authorities would always deny their culpability.

If the factory is restarted now, then a new major environmental catastrophe could be in the cards once more.

The scale of it could be unprecedented. For instance, as many as 170 people died, and 6,000 were injured, in the 2020 Beirut explosion.

Ammonia cannot explode by itself, biochemist Hlib Repich told NV – the biggest hazard is its high toxicity.

"Liquid ammonia is stored in special barrels under low pressure,” explained Repich.

“Its true danger is that it is extremely toxic. If ammonia leaks into the air and gets into a person's lungs, it destroys lung cells, causing lung swelling and death.”

Repich is convinced that in the event of a massive leak, a cloud of ammonia could form, posing a major threat to local residents and the environment. However, Repich stated that ammonia is not suitable to be used in chemical warfare.

“Ammonia is a volatile gas. Once it starts to dissipate, it goes up into the air.” Repich explained.

“Thus, it cannot cause massive poisoning, like, for instance, chlorine.”

If, however, there is an ammonia chemical leak at the Stirol plant, Russian propaganda may attempt to claim that Ukraine is responsible, and “intervene” in order to “protect the Russian citizens of the Donbas,” as Russian officials have previously said they would do.

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