What are the ‘dirty bombs’ Russia talks about

Elizabeth Smith

Over the past week, the Russian government and army have publicly claimed that Ukraine is considering using a ‘dirty nuclear bomb. Namely, a rudimentary bomb made of radioactive material. This, as part of its counteroffensive to regain some Russian-occupied regions in Ukrainian territory.

Western countries have not taken seriously the accusations by Russia. Indeed, they fear that these statements rather lay the groundwork for the use of a ‘dirty bomb’ by the Russians, who could then place the blame on the Ukrainians.

What are the “dirty bombs” Russia is talking about

Over the past weeks, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke with the Defence Ministers of the US, France and the UK concretising some of the allegations about the possible use of a ‘dirty bomb’. None of the ministers who spoke with Shoigu seemed to believe him. In a rare joint communiqué on Sunday, the three Western countries spoke of accusations that were ‘clearly false‘.

Conventionally, ‘dirty bombs’ are ordinary bursting bombs to which radioactive substances are attached – such as material used for civilian nuclear power production, which the Ukrainians would have available at Chernobyl. These radioactive materials spreads by detonation to the surrounding area.

They are much less dangerous than nuclear weapons. Under normal conditions they can only spread radioactive material for a few kilometres. According to experts, they should mainly serve to terrorise civilians in the affected area.

There are currently no confirmed cases of ‘dirty bombs’

In the 1990s, some Chechen independence groups claimed to have had access to nuclear material with which to make ‘dirty bombs’. In later years, the terrorist group al Qaeda also threatened to build a similar device. More recently, the perpetrators of the 2016 terrorist attack in Brussels, Belgium, had begun to implement a plan to build a ‘dirty bomb’. The plan included the kidnapping of a prominent Belgian nuclear scientist.

According to Western observers, there is no indication that Ukraine is preparing to use such a weapon. Indeed, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre warned quite clearly that ‘these false accusations can be used as a pretext for further escalation’ by Russia.

Is the risk of Ukraine using “dirty bombs” real?

On the other hand, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), believes that Russia is not preparing a ‘dirty bomb’ attack. And, that Shoigu with his accusations was mainly trying to “slow down or suspend the delivery of arms from Western countries to Ukraine”. Also, with the objective of possibly weaken the alliance with NATO.

Since the beginning of the invasion in Ukraine, it was only Russia that evoked the use of nuclear weapons. And, it was always Russia that risked causing a nuclear disaster by using very little caution during the occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in south-eastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian army has no nuclear arsenal. Western analysts consider the possibility of Ukraine producing and using a ‘dirty bomb’ as virtually non-existent.

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