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‘A pretext for escalation’ What you need to know about Moscow’s claims that Ukraine is building a ‘dirty bomb’
Russia continues to insist that Ukraine is preparing to use a “dirty bomb.” On the morning of October 23, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti published an article claiming that “credible sources in various countries” had said Ukraine was planning to detonate a “dirty bomb,” or radiological dispersal device, on its own territory and blame the explosion on Russia. That same day, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu called his counterparts from France, Great Britain, Turkey, and the U.S. to warn them about the allegedly upcoming “false flag” operation.
After Shoigu’s calls, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian army Valery Gerasimov called his own Western colleagues. On October 24, in talks with top military officials from Great Britain and the U.S., Gerasimov repeated Shoigu’s warnings about a “dirty bomb” in Ukraine. The same day, the Russian Defense Ministry added details to the allegations, claiming Ukraine has “radioactive material” and a “scientific base” to create “dirty bombs” — and that Kyiv could be planning to accuse Russia of accidentally detonating a low-capacity nuclear warhead.
Russia’s “strength and capabilities are on alert and prepared to fulfill their objectives in the case of radioactive contamination,” said Igor Kirillov, the chief of Russia's radiation, chemical, and biological protection force. According to Kirillov, two Ukrainian organizations received instructions to build a “dirty bomb,” and the process is “in its final stage.” Detonating the weapon will contaminate an area up to several thousands of square meters wide, Kirillov claimed.
The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry has made its own accusations about a Ukrainian “dirty bomb.” On October 24, ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that the goal of Ukraine’s alleged plan is to generate anti-Russian sentiment, undermine trust in Moscow among Russia’s allies, and isolate Russia in the international arena. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the UN Security Council will discuss the purported “dirty bomb” scheme. (According to TASS and RIA Novosti, Russia made a request for the international body to consider the issue on October 25).
Russian authorities have presented no evidence for their claims. Ukraine denies having created a “dirty bomb.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba have both accused Russia of blaming others for doing what it plans to do itself. Kyiv has asked experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to pay a visit to the facilities where Russia has alleged Ukraine is building radioactive weapons. According to IAEA Director Rafael Grossi, inspectors will visit two facilities in Ukraine in the coming days. He added that one of the facilities was inspected a month ago and nothing was found to violate any international rules.
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Western leaders don’t believe Russia’s allegations. The American, British, and French foreign ministers have called the claims a pretext for further escalation, while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called them “absurd.” The U.S. State Department and the White House have both reported that there’s currently no sign that Russia is planning to use nuclear weapons of its own. At the same time, according to The New York Times, U.S. officials are concerned Russia could be using the accusations against Ukraine to cover up its own “sinister” plans.
Moscow’s goal might be to gauge the West’s reaction, two sources told The Financial Times. The possibility of Russia carrying out a nuclear strike has been a topic of debate since the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine, but many experts have predicted that Vladimir Putin would initially use less extreme methods of escalation such as mobilization and attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure. The Russian president is currently utilizing both methods, and according to the New York Times, it will likely take him several months to determine whether they’ve been effective. It’s unclear what the next stage of the war will hold, but, as Meduza has previously reported, if Russia uses nuclear weapons, the U.S. will likely respond asymmetrically, such as by using conventional weapons.
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