West fears Russia is preparing escalation in Ukraine using ‘dirty bomb’ pretext

France, the UK and the US believe that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s claims of an imminent attack are a ruse to counter Kyiv’s gains in occupied Kherson

Russian offensive in Ukraine
People walk past a Moscow poster that reads 'Glory to the Heroes of Russia' on Monday October 24, 2022.YURI KADOBNOV (AFP)
Javier G. Cuesta

Following five months of silence, the Kremlin made two telephone calls in the space of three days to warn France, the United Kingdom and Turkey about the threat of Ukraine deploying a ‘dirty bomb’ on its own territory to then place the blame on Russia. On Sunday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu contacted his counterparts in the three countries to tell them that the Kremlin’s intelligence suggested Kyiv was planning to use such a weapon, but the response from Washington, London and Paris was that Shoigu’s assertion was a Russian bluff to justify further military escalation in the face of Ukraine’s advances on the ground in the province of Kherson, which has been under Moscow’s control since the early days of the invasion.

“Our countries made clear that we all reject Russia’s transparently false allegations that Ukraine is preparing to use a dirty bomb on its own territory,” The US, the UK and France said in a joint statement. “The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation.”

“That they mistrust the information that was conveyed by the Russian side does not mean that the dirty bomb threat ceases to exist,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on Monday. “The threat is obvious. This information was brought to their attention by the defense minister, and it is their problem whether to believe it or not.”

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Monday that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had accepted an offer from Kyiv for United Nations experts to carry out an inspection to dispel Russian suspicions about the potential use of a dirty bomb on the ground in Ukraine. As Kyiv’s forces advance on Kherson, a key strategic city on the Dnieper River that also provides control of the main water source and electricity supply to the illegally annexed Crimea region, the Moscow-installed local military-administrative authorities are continuing to evacuate civilians while also raising a local militia within the city to provide support to Russian troops based there.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in address to the nation on Sunday night that the Kremlin could also be plotting such an attack. “If Russia calls and says that Ukraine is allegedly preparing something, it means only one thing: Russia has already prepared all this,” he said.

This is not the first time Russia has accused Kyiv of preparing an attack using prohibited weapons. A week before the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine, the Moscow-installed authorities in Donetsk claimed that saboteurs were preparing to cause chemical leaks in the city of Horlivka and in 2018, the Russian Defense Ministry accused Kyiv of a plot to contaminate water in the Donbas region with radiation, based on supposed documents leaked by a group of hackers. Neither of the alleged attacks materialized.

Guerra en Ucrania hoy
Civilians evacuated from the Russian-controlled city of Kherson wait to board a bus heading to Crimea, in the town of Oleshky, Kherson region, Russian-controlled Ukraine October 23, 2022.ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO (REUTERS)

The terrorist’s weapon

A radioactive dirty bomb - a weapon that has never before been used by a regular army - is not a nuclear weapon. The detonation of a dirty bomb does not carry the devastating effect of a nuclear device as it does not release the immense destructive energy of a warhead, but instead relies on a conventional bomb to disperse contaminating material over a limited area. Therefore, the consequences of deploying a dirty bomb could be likened more to the effect of the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986 than to the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, provided it does not occur in a densely populated area.

“The typical realistic scenario for a dirty bomb is certainly serious, but many experts believe that the immediate danger to people would be minimal,” reads an essay in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, founded by members of the Manhattan Project in the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “It’s the explosion of a dirty bomb that would kill or injure people,” the author, George Moore, a scientist at the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation studies stresses. The greatest harm of a dirty bomb, notes Moore, is that “the cleanup costs of an incident and other economic losses might be enormous.”

Russian authorities have put forward other, more elaborate, scenarios for their accusations toward Kyiv. On Monday, the commander of Russia’s Radiation, Chemical and Biological Defense Forces, Lt. Gen. Igor Kirillov, said the material needed to build a dirty bomb could be obtained from several active nuclear power plants or from Chernobyl’s radioactive waste dumps. “The contamination would spread over an area of several thousand square meters,” Kirillov said. According to Kirillov’s theory, Kyiv would seek to set alarm bells ringing in European radioactivity monitoring centers by releasing the isotopes into the air, “with the consequent accusation against the Russian Federation of employing tactical nuclear weapons” and the subsequent labeling of Russia as a “terrorist state.”

This scenario is completely different from one put forward by Moscow on October 7, when Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed that Ukrainian forces would bombard the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which has been under the control of Russian troops since the beginning of the invasion. “The idea is to do everything possible to create a threat around this facility and use it as a dirty nuclear weapon,” she said. The IAEA has called for a security zone to be established around the plant.

However, Shoigu’s round of telephone calls has alarmed many experts. “This is the basis of a Russian false flag attack. It is worrying that it is happening at the level of defense ministers,” Dara Massicot, a Russian military analyst at the Rand Center, said on social media. Alexander Gabuev, a Carnegie expert, said that the resumption of contacts at ministerial level should not lead to anyone “falling into the fairy tale thinking that Putin can suffer major defeats quietly, lose the war and withdraw without provoking an escalation.”

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