October 24, 2022
Max Seddon and Roman Olearchyk

Russia’s defence ministry has “readied forces and capabilities” to deal with radioactive contamination, in the latest escalatory sign from Moscow after issuing unsubstantiated and disputed claims that Ukraine is developing a “dirty bomb”.

Igor Kirillov, commander of Russia’s nuclear, chemical and biological defence forces, said on Monday that Ukraine wanted to spread radioactive material on its own country with the intention of framing Russia to undermine support for Moscow worldwide. Ukraine is allegedly reaching the “final stage” of building a nuclear weapon and is requesting support from the UK, Kirillov claimed. He provided no evidence for his allegations.

The military briefing comes as Ukraine has vehemently rejected Russia’s accusations as “dirty blackmail”. Kyiv has warned that Moscow was seeking to pressure western powers into dropping their support for Ukraine and pushing it to accept a peace deal on Russia’s terms.

Washington, London and Paris — Nato’s three nuclear powers — issued a joint statement on Sunday saying that Russia’s claims were “transparently false”. They warned Moscow against using them as a pretext to escalate the war in Ukraine.

Kirillov’s briefing marked the first time Russia had raised its level of preparation for potential nuclear use since the early days of Vladimir Putin’s war eight months ago. It follows warnings from the Russian president that he stood ready to use nuclear weapons to fend off Ukrainian counteroffensives in the eastern and southern parts of the country, which he now considers part of Russia.

Putin said he was ready to use “all the means at our disposal” to defend Russia after announcing the unilateral annexation of four Ukrainian regions last month. On Sunday, defence minister Sergei Shoigu set alarm bells ringing in Nato capitals by initiating phone calls with his US, UK, French and Turkish counterparts to discuss Russia’s claim of a “dirty bomb”.

“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,” Paris, Washington and London said in their joint statement. “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.”

The warnings from Kirillov, who commands troops responsible for dealing with radioactive contamination rather than for readying nuclear forces, echoed previous unsubstantiated Russian claims that Ukraine was preparing to use biological weapons in the conflict.

In a similar presentation in March, Kirillov accused Ukraine of setting up a network of US-backed labs that he claimed developed “bioagents capable of infecting specific ethnic groups” and studied how migratory birds could spread the pathogens into Russia.

Ukraine accused Russia of making the claims to lay the groundwork for a possible chemical or biological weapons attack that ultimately did not materialise.

Experts likened the claims to Russia’s frequent accusations of “provocations” with chemical weapons in Syria, including one Kirillov mentioned on Monday, that sometimes preceded attacks on rebel-held areas but more often came to nothing.

Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington