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Russia Warning: About to set off a radioactive dirty bomb?

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and President Vladimir Putin (Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/Released)
October 24, 2022

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu warned this weekend that Ukrainian forces could set off a radioactive “dirty bomb” that could escalate the ongoing fighting in the country to dangerous new levels for the global community. The U.S. and its allies are already rejecting the Russian claims as a pretext to escalate their war in Ukraine.

Shoigu held calls with U.S., United Kingdom and French counterparts over the weekend. According to a Russian readout of Shoigu’s call with French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu, Shoigu raised the prospect of Ukrainian forces using a dirty bomb.

A dirty bomb, or radioactive dispersal device (RDD), is a conventional explosive laced with radioactive materials. While not as severe as a nuclear blast, a dirty bomb could disperse radioactive material over a broad area.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin provided a readout of his Friday call with Shoigu in which offered few details about their actual discussions but stated Austin “rejected any pretext for Russian escalation and reaffirmed the value of continued communication amid Russia’s unlawful and unjustified war against Ukraine.”  

A U.K. readout of Defense Minister Ben Wallace’s call with Shoigu stated the Russian official “alleged that Ukraine was planning actions facilitated by Western countries, including the UK, to escalate the conflict in Ukraine.” The readout did not further elaborate on the nature of the Ukrainian plan Shoigu alleged.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the foreign ministers of France and the U.K. also issued a joint statement directly rejecting any Russian claims that Ukraine could set off a dirty bomb and characterizing Shoigu’s comments as a Russian pretext to escalate the war in Ukraine.

“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 U.S., U.K. and French joint statement reads. “The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation. We further reject any pretext for escalation by Russia.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy went as far as to allege that the Russian side is itself planning a dirty bomb attack.

If Russia calls and says that Ukraine is allegedly preparing something, it means one thing: Russia has already prepared all this,” Zelenskyy said according to Reuters.

U.S. officials and other Western allies have raised the prospect of Russia using so-called “false flag” operations throughout the conflict in Ukraine. A false flag operation is one in which an actor carries out an attack or other destructive act with the intent of pinning the blame on an opponent to create an excuse to take further action against that opponent.

In the days before Russian launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists forces in eastern Ukraine claimed Ukrainian government forces had launched artillery attacks. Then-U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the artillery strikes a “false flag” perpetrated by the pro-Russian side.

The prospect of a dirty bomb has cropped up throughout the media in the post 9/11 era.

While military analysts have theorized that dirty bombs could be used as weapons of mass destruction that contaminate areas with radioactive particles, research by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) indicates such a weapon “would not release enough radiation to kill people or cause severe illness.

“The conventional explosive itself would be more harmful to people than the radioactive material,” an NRC assessment of dirty bombs states. “However, an RDD explosion could create fear and panic, contaminate property and require potentially costly cleanup.”