A flurry of phone calls from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu warning of imminent threat “dirty bomb” attack has sent alarm bells ringing in Western capitals, where nervousness over Moscow’s threats to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine increased.
The threat, which has been condemned by the US, UK and France as an attempt to lay the groundwork for a “false flag” attack blamed on Ukraine, has heightened fears that the war of eight months go nuclearas analysts warn, the key message was that whatever weapons are used, Ukraine should prepare for new escalation.
“Ukraine has neither the need nor the ability to use a dirty bomb. Russia loses. The worry is that Russia could use the claim that Ukraine is about to use a dirty bomb as a pretext for its own preemptive and escalating attack,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, senior researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a thinker from London. Tank.
Shoigu’s statement that the war is also getting more “out of control” is “also the kind of phrasing meant to scare people,” Gould-Davies added.
In calls Sunday with Lloyd Austin, Ben Wallace, Sébastien Lecornu and Hulusi Akar, the defense ministers of the United States, United Kingdom, France and Turkey respectively, Shoigu asserted that Ukraine – with the help of the West – planned to use a dirty bomb.
In a joint statement released in the early hours of Monday morning in Europe, the foreign ministers of France, the United Kingdom and the United States “made it clear” that they reject “the manifestly false allegations of the Russia that Ukraine is preparing to use a dirty bomb on its own territory”.
“The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation. We further reject any pretense of escalation by Russia,” the ministers added.
On the face of it, the coordinated pushback maintained two pillars of US-NATO messaging policy before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February: denouncing what they see as potential Russian false flag operations and condemn any nuclear rhetoric. From Moscow.
But Monday’s statement carried more weight given its swift, nightly coordination between NATO’s three nuclear powers. The sense of urgency has been heightened by recent nuclear threats issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin following Moscow’s military setbacks on the battlefield.
After the declaration of the NATO powers, Russia continued to stick to its own scenario: its Ministry of Defense declared that it had “prepared forces and capabilities” to deal with the fallout of the radioactive contamination. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later said Moscow would take its dirty bomb allegations to the United Nations. The head of the Russian armed forces, Valery Gerasimov, has had phone calls with his British and American counterparts to discuss the allegations.
But the signals from Moscow did not appear to reflect a change in Russia’s nuclear posture, which accelerated when Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces to go on “high alert” at the start of his invasion of Ukraine.
The United States does not assess that Russia has decided to use nuclear weapons, a senior US military official said Monday. “We still haven’t seen anything to indicate that the Russians made the decision to use nuclear weapons,” the official said, adding that the United States continued to monitor the situation closely. Austin will speak to his Ukrainian counterpart and other allies in the coming days.
Two Western officials told the FT on condition of anonymity they believed the threats were a way to keep fears alive in the west of a potential nuclear event in Ukraine, given the orchestrated nature of the warning, and to test the reaction of Western capitals.
A dirty bomb is a conventional explosive containing radioactive material that contaminates an area around the site of the explosion with radiation, but is technically not a nuclear weapon.
Pavel Podvig, a senior fellow at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, said it would have little use on the battlefield.
“This type of bomb is probably the least effective way to disperse these materials. We are talking about tens of meters in diameter of contamination,” he said.
“Even then, no one would be in immediate danger in the sense that, well, there’s no good getting into a radioactive cloud, but it’s not like anyone would get the doses that would cause immediate damage, not to mention death,” Podvig added.
Ukraine denied the Russian claims and said it welcomed a visit from the UN’s nuclear watchdog to confirm it did not possess such weapons.
The NATO powers have warned that any use of nuclear weapons by Russia would have ‘serious consequences’ for Moscow, and suggested that if radioactive fallout were to affect any member of the military alliance, it could trigger its clause of mutual defense in response.
Shoigu’s calls have divided analysts, who have pointed out that Moscow breaking the nuclear taboo will achieve limited military results.
“Of course, it could be that Shoigu doubled down on Putin’s nuclear bluff. But the language was disturbing. Shoigu said the West was ‘facilitating’ the alleged dirty bomb but did not ask the West for anything,” Gould-Davies said.
Other analysts believe Shoigu was seeking to intimidate Western supporters of Ukraine and widen rifts within NATO’s military alliance, following similar earlier claims about Kyiv’s supposed plans to use weapons of mass destruction.
Despite the background, other Western officials welcomed the resumption of calls between the Russian defense minister and his NATO counterparts. Shoigu’s call with Austin on Friday was the first time the top US and Russian military leaders had spoken since May.
NATO and the United States pushed for more dialogue between Western and Russian military leaders to avoid miscalculations and misunderstandings, after Moscow cut communication channels early in the war.
“It’s good to talk,” said a third Western official. “Anything that reduces tensions at the present time should be welcome.”
Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington