Marc Bennetts, Didi Tang and Richard Spencer

March 22, 2023

The Times

Russia has warned that Britain is taking “steps towards a nuclear collision” and that Moscow will be forced to react after the government announced that it was sending shells tipped with depleted uranium to Ukraine.


Baroness Goldie, the defence minister, said that the Challenger 2 tanks Britain was supplying to Ukraine would be armed with the shells, which penetrate armour more easily but have been linked to adverse health effects.

“Alongside our granting of a squadron of Challenger 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine, we will be providing ammunition including armour-piercing rounds which contain depleted uranium,” Goldie said in a parliamentary written answer. “Such rounds are highly effective in defeating modern tanks and armoured vehicles.”

The announcement caused outrage in Moscow, where President Putin was hosting President Xi of China in a state visit designed to confirm a strategic and political alliance against the West.

Putin, asked about Goldie’s comments, said: “If this happens, Russia will be forced to react accordingly, given that the West collectively is already beginning to use weapons with a nuclear component.”

The British Ministry of Defence hit back at Putin’s claims, saying: “The British Army has used depleted uranium in its armour-piercing shells for decades. It is a standard component and has nothing to do with nuclear weapons or capabilities. Russia knows this but is deliberately trying to disinform.”

James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, added: “There is no nuclear escalation. The only country in the world that is talking about nuclear issues is Russia. There is no threat to Russia, this is purely about helping Ukraine defend itself.”

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said sending depleted uranium ammunition to Ukraine would mean Britain was “ready to violate international humanitarian law”. He added: “There is no doubt this will end badly for London.”

Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, also threatened a response and again raised the prospect of the Ukraine conflict turning into a nuclear confrontation. “Another step has been taken, and there are fewer and fewer left,” he said.

Ukraine has welcomed the delivery of Challengers from Britain, Abrams tanks from the United States and German Leopards as it prepares for an expected spring counter-offensive.

Depleted uranium shells have been a regular part of the armoury for Challengers and other western tanks over the past three decades, despite calls for a ban. The metal has lower levels of radioactive isotopes than regular uranium but is still toxic and has been blamed by Iraq for higher rates of childhood cancer and birth defects since the allied invasion 20 years ago.

Russia has warned that it would regard the provision of depleted uranium shells to Ukraine as being equivalent to using “dirty nuclear bombs”.

Their delivery being confirmed during the much-hyped visit of Xi to Moscow deepened fears that the war in Ukraine was turning into a pivotal conflict between the West and a strengthening alliance of autocratic powers.

The talks between Xi and Putin had already set a clear dividing line with the West over not just Ukraine but over trade and the balance of power in Europe and Asia.

In a later joint declaration, the two men railed against Nato, and particularly the US. “The parties call on the United States to stop undermining international and regional security and global strategic stability in order to secure its unilateral military advantage,” it said. But it also promised: “There can be no winners in a nuclear war, and it must never be unleashed.”

It was unclear whether this marked a concession by Russia, which has laid down clear and expanded terms under which it might resort to the first use of its nuclear arsenal in the conflict.

The centrepiece of the summit was the presentation of China’s peace plan for Ukraine, which backs “national sovereignty” in vague terms but fails to explicitly call for a Russian withdrawal and has been broadly dismissed by both Ukraine and its western backers.

President Zelensky said that he was still waiting for Xi to pick up the phone and speak to him. “We offered China to become a partner in the implementation of the peace formula,” he said, referring to Ukraine’s own peace proposals.

“We passed over our formula across all channels. We invite you to dialogue. We are waiting for your answer. We are receiving some signals, but there are no specifics yet.”

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, welcomed the commitment of China’s plan to Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” and its demands for protection of civilians. But he added that Nato feared that Russia was asking China to supply it with weapons, which would mark a shift in Beijing’s official position of neutrality in the war.

“We have seen some signs that this has been a request from Russia and that this is an issue that is being considered in Beijing,” he said. “Our message has been that China should not provide lethal aid to Russia.”

Putin was as enthusiastic about Beijing’s proposals as the West was sceptical. “We believe that many of the provisions of the peace plan put forward by China are consonant with Russian approaches and can be taken as the basis for a peaceful settlement when they are ready for that in the West and in Kyiv,” he said. “However, so far we see no such readiness from their side.”

On non-military issues the Moscow summit drew the two countries ever closer. Putin said that Moscow was ready to help Chinese businesses replace western firms that had left Russia since the invasion of Ukraine in February last year.

He said that a new pipeline, known as Power of Siberia 2, had been agreed to deliver 50 billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas per year from Russia to China via Mongolia. Russia would also provide oil.

“I am sure that Russian-Chinese co-operation has truly unlimited possibilities and prospects,” Putin said at the state dinner that followed their press conference.

Xi had earlier met Mikhail Mishustin, the Russian prime minister, and invited Putin “to visit China this year at a time that is convenient for him” for another summit. “The early harvest of (our) co-operation can be seen, and further co-operation is being advanced,” Xi told Putin.

The summit has been fêted in Chinese state media as a sign of Xi’s success in shaping a new world order to compete with American “hegemony”.

“Against the backdrop of the world’s turbulence, China and Russia have charted a way to coexist as friendly neighbours and major powers with strategic mutual trust, setting a new paradigm for the relationship between major powers and bringing all-round inspiration to the world,” read an editorial in the Global Times, a party-run newspaper.

In a highly choreographed response, Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida arrived in Kyiv for his first meeting with Zelensky in Ukraine since the war began, inviting him to join the G7 summit to be held in Hiroshima in May. Japan and Ukraine are each being drawn into an ever-closer military partnership with Nato as tensions rise across Europe and Asia.

In Taiwan leaders were welcoming simultaneous delegations from the leading Nato powers.

A British parliamentary group, led by Bob Stewart MP, met Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwanese president, yesterday, while Robert O’Brien, a former US national security adviser, was also visiting as head of the Taiwan-US relations task force at the Global Taiwan Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

The arrival of Bettina Stark-Watzinger, the German minister of education and research, marked the first time in 26 years that any German minister had visited Taiwan. She will formally be focusing on strengthening co-operation with the island on academics, research and education.

A 150-strong Czech delegation, led by Marketa Pekarova Adamova, the speaker of the chamber of deputies, is set to arrive on Saturday despite repeated warnings from Beijing. The group, the largest to visit Taiwan, will consist of businesspeople, government officials, scientists and researchers.

“We sincerely thank friendly governments for actively supporting and speaking up for Taiwan at this critical moment,” Taiwan’s foreign ministry said.