A Late Note on Ben Wallace and “Mobile Crematoriums”

From Snopes, in February:

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in late February 2022, disturbing accounts of a crematorium on wheels circulated through various news publications and in statements by a U.K. government official.

According to U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, the Russian military may use mobile crematoriums in Ukraine to cover up any casualties from combat.

…According to The Telegraph, the U.K. Ministry of Defense released a video of the crematoriums.

We found the video with the exact same footage posted on YouTube in 2015, which provides the contact information of Tourmaline, a St. Petersburg company allegedly behind such machines… The original video appears to be from August 2013.

It bugged me at the time that the Telegraph would describe an old YouTube video as “footage released by the MoD”. My interpretation is that Wallace wanted a media talking point, and so someone in his office decided to dust off an old claim that had circulated in 2015 after the invasion of Donbas.

No firm evidence was ever produced back then, and it looks to me that confusion either arose or was contrived due to an overlap in meaning between крематоры and Инсинератор. Many people understand a “crematorium” to mean a place where an entire human body is destroyed, whereas dead animals and organic hospital waste are sent to an “incinerator”. More formally, however, a “crematorium” is a device for destroying any biological matter. It appears that the mobile crematoria are designed for use on farms, and that the idea of them being used to destroy human remains was simply a speculative extrapolation.

Snopes rated the claim as “unproven”, and it hasn’t felt the need to revise its assessment since then. However, the story is now being revived on social media in the wake of the discovery of Russian atrocities in Ukraine. This time, though, the supposed purpose of the crematoria is not to conceal Russian deaths in a way utterly inconsistent with Russian Orthodox and Muslim practice (cremation is strictly forbidden), but rather to dispose of murdered Ukrainians. However, neither speculation makes much sense: it is well known that the Russians have suffered heavy casualties, and there is no evidence that Russian soldiers have made any effort to conceal their crimes (indeed, it’s possible that civilian bodies have been left on display deliberately, as a form of psychological terrorism). Further, no mobile crematorium has so far been spotted in any of the many videos or pictures showing Russian equipment.

Wallace’s decision to recycle an old YouTube video in such a misleading way is self-promoting buffoonery that we could well do without. I’m reminded of the way that the former MP Patrick Mercer used to get himself in the newspapers on a regular basis with talking points about the Taliban using HIV needle bombs and Islamic terrorists deploying explosive breast implants.

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