Russia stepped up its nuclear propaganda and handed over a letter to the United Nations claiming that Ukraine was about to detonate a “dirty bomb” on its territory, a claim dismissed by Kyiv, Western governments and weapons experts like absurd and an attempted distraction or pretext for Moscow’s own escalation.
The letter was addressed to the UN Secretary-General and the Ambassador of Gabon, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council, and follows calls from the Russian Defense Minister to Foreign Ministers in recent days making similar unsubstantiated claims.
At the same time, Russia circulated a 310-page document to the Security Council repeating earlier debunked claims that Ukraine and its Western backers had been working on a biological weapon.
Asked about the Russian claims on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden said: “I spent a lot of time today talking about it.”
The letter was delivered at a time when Russia is still suffering battlefield losses in Ukraine and wants to turn the tide. NATO has entered its second week of annual nuclear war rehearsal exercises, and Russia is expected to launch its own annual drills this week.
The Russian UN letter presented no evidence of Moscow’s claim that Ukraine was preparing to detonate a dirty bomb, an explosive device designed to scatter radioactive material over an area in order to at least temporarily render it uninhabitable.
Instead, it lists all the possible sources of radioactive isotopes that Ukraine could possibly have access to, but makes several errors, suggesting that whoever wrote the letter had no understanding of the science involved, officials said. experts.
Ukrainian uranium mines are listed as a possible source of material for a dirty bomb, but natural uranium ore would be useless for such a purpose.
“You can’t make a dirty bomb out of uranium ore. It is a pile of rock that contains tiny inclusions of 99% uranium of which only a tiny part is radioactive. Only sustained long-term exposure can cause harm to humans,” said Mariana Budjeryn, senior research associate with the Atom Management Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.
Other sources of radioactive material mentioned in the letter were spent fuel at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, but that has been cooling for decades and wouldn’t do much harm. Other listed sites containing potentially more toxic materials are sealed off and monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), so any diversion would be tracked and reported.
The letter also claimed that Kyiv wanted the bomb to be a false flag operation, in which the Ukrainians would claim it was a low-yield Russian nuclear weapon containing highly enriched uranium, which would be detected in the ‘atmosphere. But the traces left by a dirty bomb would be completely different from a real nuclear weapon, which would leave behind nuclear fission products.
“There is no world in which scattered spent nuclear fuel or some sort of radioactive material from research facilities could be mistaken for, or misrepresented as, the by-products of a nuclear fission reaction” , Budjeryn said. “It’s just elementary physics.”
The Russian letter also referred to another “heinous scenario” allegedly plotted by Kyiv, to sabotage a nuclear power plant under its control or to bomb the Zaporizhzhia power plant under Russian occupation. But again, he offered no evidence as to why Ukraine would commit such a significant act of self-harm.
The flimsiness of the claims has led some diplomats and pundits to suspect that it was not to convince anyone but to send a message, but it is unclear what that message may be. One possibility is that it is meant to look like a cover for Russia’s own plans to use such a device in the latest in a long line of efforts to dissuade Ukraine’s backers from continuing their support. .
Another option is that it is simply a distraction from Russia’s continued military setbacks in Ukraine, intended primarily for domestic consumption.
“I guess because they need something to sell to the Russian media when they are kicked out of Kherson,” a Western diplomat suggested to the UN.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia’s accusation was a sign that Moscow – which has threatened to use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine – was planning such an attack and preparing to blame Ukraine .
In Washington on Tuesday, Biden said, “Russia would be making an incredible and grave mistake if it used a tactical nuclear weapon.”
Asked about the Russian dirty bomb allegations, he replied: “I don’t guarantee yet that this is a false flag operation. I don’t know, but that would be a big mistake, a very big mistake.
The Kyiv government has asked the IAEA to verify that no radioactive material is missing in Ukraine, and the UN nuclear watchdog says it is preparing to send inspectors to two Ukrainian sites unidentified, both already subject to frequent inspections.
At the same time, Ukraine’s nuclear energy authority, Energoatom, reported that Russian occupation forces were carrying out secret construction work at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
Energoatom said it believed the Russians were “preparing a terrorist act using nuclear materials and radioactive waste” stored within the plant compound.
The Russian allegations come amid reports suggesting that Russian forces and Wagner mercenaries have suffered heavy casualties in recent days in fighting in the key Donbas town of Bakhmut, which has been the subject of four months of effort ferocious Russians to advance there with little to show for the effort.
The flurry of Russian accusations has sparked deep skepticism in the West, with analysts pointing to Moscow’s history of false allegations – including its characterization of Ukraine as a “neo-Nazi” regime – to justify its own aggression.
France, Britain and the United States said the allegations were “manifestly false” and Washington warned Russia that there would be “serious consequences” if Russia used nuclear materials, while claiming that there was no sign of that yet.
“There would be consequences for Russia whether they used a dirty bomb or a nuclear bomb,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Perhaps significantly, the Russian allegation prompted rare communications with the West, with Moscow Armed Forces Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov speaking to his US counterpart Mark Milley on Monday to the first time since May.
Early Tuesday, Ukrainian army chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyi said he too had spoken to Milley.
Most analysts believe that there is little chance that a dirty false flag bombing could really serve as a pretext for a nuclear explosion.
“If it was a false flag event, we would know instantly, no one would blame Ukraine,” said William Alberque, an arms control expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. .
“Radiological weapons are so identifiable, so scrutinized. You can make a chemical weapon from scratch,” but “nuclear material has a fingerprint” depending on the facilities used to create it, he added.