On Oct.23, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had phone conversations with his counterparts in France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Turkey.
Shoigu alleged to the four NATO member states, all of which either have nuclear weapons of their own or host those belonging to the U.S. and openly support Kyiv since the beginning of the full-scale war, that Ukraine is “planning to use a dirty bomb on its territory to subsequently blame Russia for the act.”
While making these claims, Shoigu did not provide any evidence, expressing a general concern instead.
In response, President Volodymyr Zelensky said the Russian accusation is a reflection of what Moscow wants to do. “If Russia calls and says that Ukraine is allegedly preparing something, it means one thing: Russia has already prepared all this,” he said.
To ensure full transparency, Kyiv also invited representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency to facilities in Ukraine where this bomb is allegedly being developed.
Meanwhile, the U.S., France, and the U.K. issued a statement that “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 world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation. We further reject any pretext for escalation by Russia.”
In addition to that, the governments added that “foreign ministers also discussed their shared determination to continue supporting Ukraine and the Ukrainian people with security, economic, and humanitarian assistance in the face of President Putin’s brutal war of aggression.”
Turkey, however, limited its response to discussing the ceasefire and the need to be “careful and cautious.”
Moscow’s decision to reach out to the U.S. and the U.K. with which the Kremlin’s relations are especially tainted, not least because the Russians continuously and openly promote the narrative of the “evil Anglo-Saxons” who must be turned into “nuclear dust,” is puzzling, especially given the scarcity of such calls and Washington and London’s blunt designation of Russian statements as lies.
While Shoigu and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have held several talks since the start of the war and Moscow has maintained high-level relations with France and Turkey, the Kremlin has been effectively ignoring official London, making yesterday’s call the first one between Shoigu and U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace.
Though it is hardly surprising that Shoigu did not provide any evidence for his claims, the fact that he deemed it necessary to call NATO member states, and not, for example, make a public announcement, poses countless questions as to why.
An attempt to use this situation as a pretext for resorting to nuclear weapons seems to be improbable as the latter cannot be mistaken for a dirty bomb and will provoke a response, a circumstance that the West has made ultimately clear to Russia with patience noticeably receding as Russia continues its nuclear saber-rattling.
Russia’s possible use of a dirty bomb would give very unclear advantages on the battleground, if any, and will only likely lead to more sanctions and ostracization. The topic already prompted France, the U.S. and the U.K. to discuss how they will continue supporting Ukraine.
Creating an illusion that Ukraine would be to blame for the supposed use of this dirty bomb – should Russia go ahead with that scenario – in the eyes of its authoritarian partners in parts of the global south, would also have questionable benefit as it could well undermine their pro-Russian neutrality.
Despite Moscow’s belief that it has influence in these regions – the recent vote in the UN on the condemnation of the false annexations shows that it is not as supported as Russia would like to think – and economic gains that these countries are likely getting by helping Russia circumvent sanctions may not eclipse the normalization of radiation-related activities by Russia. Despite Moscow’s wishful thinking, these countries are aligning with the Kremlin mostly for their economic interests while knowing who the chief culprit is.
Commenting on the motives of Shoigu’s act, the Institute for the Study of War believes that the main aim is not to use the bomb but to “confuse the wider picture,” a supposition the former chief of U.K.’s general staff General Richard Dannatt, for example, agreed with.
Moscow’s love for suspense and inherent desire to be listened to and talked about, however, could play a bigger role in this story.
The full-scale war divulged the lackluster state of the Russian army and its purported state-of-the-art equipment that has fallen short of its Western counterparts. The illusion that they allegedly possess some information that the U.S. and other powerhouses do not feeds their egoistic notion of self-importance. It also speaks to their native audience which lives in a perceptual duality where the Russian army is losing but the state is still “very strong” and can “easily compete.”
For Shoigu, whose reputation in both Russia and outside of it is suffering from major military setbacks, this illusion is pivotal as it is becoming increasingly clear that Russia’s chances of holding on to the only major gain of the war, the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine, are fading.
The Russian Telegram channels are already preparing their audience for the loss of Kherson despite just recently claiming that the Ukrainian army will never be able to liberate it. In such an environment, Russia’s military defeats will require some sort of response to appease the public and deal with its own aggravation.
With the Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov continuing to insist that “the threat of using such a dirty bomb exists” and blaming the West for distrusting Russia, it seems like Moscow is willing to stick to its lie for the time being.
How and if Russia is preparing to act depends on how far it is willing to ostracize itself and remain in its devoted support group of North Korea, Syria, Nicaragua, and Belarus.
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