Oct 24, 2022 - World

"Dirty bomb" fears prompt urgent U.S.-Russia calls

Kyiv, Ukraine, in darkness due to energy conservation efforts following Russian attacks on infrastructure. Photo: Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Fears of a radioactive "false flag" have sparked a rare flurry of phone calls between Washington and Moscow and between the U.S. and its allies as they warn the Kremlin against nuclear escalation.

Why it matters: Kyiv and Washington have both rejected the "absurd" claims from top Russian officials and state media that Ukraine intends to detonate a "dirty bomb" on its own soil. But both have noted that Moscow often accuses others of what it intends to do itself.

  • A “dirty bomb” is an explosive device that includes both conventional explosives and nuclear material. Such devices can create widespread radioactive contamination.

Driving the news: Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu raised the "dirty bomb" claim in calls with the defense ministers of the U.S., France, U.K. and Turkey on Sunday. That was his second call with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in three days after months of little contact.

  • In a signal of the concern surrounding Russia's potential next move, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and his U.K. counterpart Adm. Tony Radakin both spoke Monday with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russia's top general.
  • That was the first call between Milley and Gerasimov since May, per Reuters.
  • The foreign ministers of France, the U.K. and U.S. also spoke on Sunday to coordinate their responses.

What they're saying: Asked by Axios' Barak Ravid on Monday about Shoigu's "dirty bomb" claim, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said "Shoigu should drink less dirty vodka."

  • Kuleba said Ukraine has no such weapons and invited the UN's nuclear watchdog to inspect the facilities Russia claims are being used to develop one.
  • The U.S., France and the U.K. also rejected Shoigu's "transparently false allegations" in a joint statement on Sunday. “The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation," they wrote.

In Moscow, though, the warnings are ramping up. A Russian commander Monday announced stepped-up preparations for radioactive contamination from a potential attack and claimed without evidence that Ukraine is seeking Western help as it reaches the "final stage" of building a nuclear weapon.

  • Ukraine does not have a nuclear weapons program.

Between the lines: With his troops struggling on the battlefield, President Vladimir Putin is targeting civilian infrastructure in Ukrainian cities and warning the U.S. and NATO that if they keep backing Ukraine they are risking a nuclear conflict.

  • If Putin does intend to move up the escalation ladder and convince Washington that he's willing to go nuclear, a dirty bomb could be one option at his disposal.

Yes, but: National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Monday that the U.S. has not seen any evidence that Russia has decided on or is preparing for such an attack.

  • Some analysts contend that the Kremlin's goal isn't to set the stage for an attack but simply to whip up fear of one.

Zoom in: It's pitch black in Kyiv tonight as the government implements power cuts to conserve electricity due to repeated Russian attacks on the power grid.

Go deeper: Zelensky says Russia will help Iran with its nuclear program

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