A spate of calls from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu warning of an imminent “dirty bomb” attack has set alarm bells ringing in Western capitals, where nervousness over Moscow’s threat of nuclear weapons against Ukraine use has increased.
The threat, denounced by the US, UK and France as an attempt to lay the groundwork for a “false flag” attack attributed to Ukraine, has heightened fears that the eight-month war will turn nuclear. as analysts warn The message was that whatever weapons are used, Ukraine must prepare for further escalation.
“Ukraine has neither the need nor the ability to use a dirty bomb. It is Russia that is losing. The concern is that Russia is using the claim that Ukraine is poised to use a dirty bomb as a pretext for its own preemptive, escalating attack,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based thinker. . tank.
Shoigu’s statement that the war is also becoming more “out of control” is “also the kind of wording meant to scare people,” Gould-Davies added.
In Sunday talks with Lloyd Austin, Ben Wallace, Sébastien Lecornu and Hulusi Akar, the defense ministers of the US, UK, France and Turkey respectively, Shoigu claimed that Ukraine – with Western aid – was planning to use a dirty bomb.
In a joint statement released in Europe early Monday morning, the foreign ministers of France, the UK and the US “made it clear” that they “referred to Russia’s transparent false accusations that Ukraine is preparing to deploy a dirty bomb.” to use its own territory”.
“The world would see through any attempt to use this claim as a pretext for escalation. We further reject any pretext for escalation by Russia,” the minister added.
On the face of it, the coordinated pushback has maintained two pillars of US and NATO messaging policies since Russia launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February: declaring what they see as potential Russian false flag operations and condemning any nuclear rhetoric. from Moscow.
But Monday’s statement had more weight given the rapid coordination late at night between NATO’s three nuclear powers. The sense of urgency was heightened by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent nuclear threats following Moscow’s military setbacks on the battlefield.
After the NATO powers’ statement, Russia stuck to its own script: the defense ministry said it had “troops and capabilities ready” to deal with the effects of radioactive contamination. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov then said Moscow would submit its charges of dirty bombings to the United Nations. The head of the Russian armed forces, Valery Gerasimov, telephoned his British and American colleagues to discuss the allegations.
But signals from Moscow did not seem to indicate a change in Russia’s nuclear stance, which kicked up a gear when Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to be “supreme alert” at the start of his invasion of Ukraine.
The US does not judge that Russia has decided to use nuclear weapons, a senior US military official said Monday. “We still have not seen anything to indicate that the Russians have made a decision to deploy nuclear weapons,” the official said, adding that the US continues to monitor the situation closely. Austin will speak with his Ukrainian counterpart and other allies in the coming days.
Two Western officials told the FT on condition of anonymity that they believed the threats were a means of perpetuating western fears of a possible nuclear event in Ukraine, given the orchestrated nature of the warning, and to test how western capitals would respond.
A dirty bomb is a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material that contaminates an area around the explosion site with radiation, but is not technically a nuclear weapon.
Pavel Podvig, a senior researcher at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, said it would have little use on the battlefield.
“Such a bomb is probably the least efficient way to disperse these materials. We are talking about tens of meters in diameter of the pollution,” he said.
“Even then no one would be in immediate danger in the sense that, well, it’s not good to get into a radioactive cloud, but it’s not like anyone would get the doses that would cause immediate harm, not to mention of death,” added.
Ukraine has denied the Russian claims and said it welcomed a visit by the UN nuclear watchdog to confirm it has no such weapons.
The NATO powers have warned that any use of nuclear weapons by Russia would have “serious consequences” for Moscow, suggesting that if radioactive fallout struck a member of the military alliance, it could trigger its mutual defense clause in response.
Shoigu’s calls have divided analysts, who emphasized that breaking the nuclear taboo by Moscow would yield limited military results.
“Of course it may be that Shoigu doubled Putin’s nuclear bluff. But the language was worrying. Shoigu said the West “facilitated” the alleged dirty bomb, but the West didn’t ask for anything,” Gould-Davies said.
Other analysts believe that Shoigu wanted to intimidate Ukraine’s western supporters and widen the gaps within NATO’s military alliance, echoing similar previous claims about Kiev’s alleged plans to use weapons of mass destruction.
Despite the content, other Western officials welcomed the resumption of talks between the Russian defense minister and his NATO counterparts. Shoigu’s call with Austin on Friday marked the first time US and Russian military chiefs had met since May.
NATO and the US have pushed for more dialogue between Western and Russian military leaders to avoid miscalculations and misunderstandings after Moscow cut off communication channels at the start of the war.
“It’s good to talk,” said a third Western official. “Anything that reduces tensions at the moment should be applauded.”
Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington