Russia baselessly claimed Ukraine is preparing to detonate a “dirty bomb” in its own territory.
Top analysts and Russia experts say this is a ploy to scare away Western support for Kyiv.
“[Putin] knows he can’t win on the battlefield,” a former CIA officer who served in Russia, told Insider.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s unfounded claim that Ukraine might detonate a “dirty bomb” and irradiate its own territory is designed to sow fear and confusion, and part of a broader effort to persuade the West to drop support for Kyiv and push for peace as Russia loses ground on the battlefield, according to military analysts and Russia experts.
Shoigu, who made the groundless assertion in calls with his Western counterparts, was likely vying to “pressure Ukraine into concessions and intimidate NATO,” according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
The Russian defense minister was probably attempting to “slow or suspend Western military aid to Ukraine and possibly weaken the NATO alliance,” ISW said.
Western governments swiftly rejected Shoigu’s claim and warned Moscow against using it as a “pretext for escalation.” Ukraine also asked the UN’s nuclear agency to send experts to inspect its nuclear facilities to prove Russia’s “dirty bomb” accusations are false. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, “If Russia calls and says that Ukraine is allegedly preparing something, it means one thing: Russia has already prepared all this.”
A so-called dirty bomb, which is a type of radiological dispersal device, is a weapon that uses conventional explosives to spread radioactive material. Such weapons are nowhere near as dangerous as a nuclear bomb and are unlikely to cause mass casualties. There are also no documented cases of a dirty bomb attack.
“They’re more of a psychological weapon. When you’re trying to scare people, intimidate people, you’d use a weapon like this,” Scott Roecker, vice president for the nuclear materials security program at The Nuclear Threat Initiative, told the Associated Press.
But the Kremlin is unlikely to be preparing for a false-flag dirty bomb attack in the near future, according to ISW’s assessment, underscoring that Shoigu’s allegations followed a pattern when it comes to Russian disinformation. Since launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia has repeatedly made outlandish, discredited claims of Kyiv and its Western partners preparing for false-flag attacks or other operations involving weapons of mass destruction.
Russia continues to face major setbacks on the battlefield in a war that’s been disastrous for its military. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine, whose forces have dealt a major blow to the prestige once enjoyed by Russia’s military.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a number of escalatory steps in recent weeks, including a partial military mobilization and illegally annexing occupied Ukrainian territories that Russia does not fully control. Putin also declared martial law in these occupied regions, even as Russian troops lose ground in the face of a Ukrainian counteroffensive. Ukraine’s success in pushing back the Russian invaders can be credited, in part, to Western-supplied weapons.
“[Putin] knows he can’t win on the battlefield and he is in a weak position,” John Sipher, a former CIA officer who served in Russia, told Insider. Putin is trying to buy time and employ other means to influence Western leaders, Sipher said, adding that more cyber attacks, sabotage of infrastructure, threats, and support for violent groups in the West can be expected. The Russian defense minister’s “dirty bomb” claim is seemingly part of this, as Putin looks to signal to the West that he can still cause economic and political pain.
The Russian leader is “likely using Shoigu to warn the West and hope some Western leaders prefer to do a deal to stop the war on Putin’s terms,” Sipher said.
Douglas London, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a former CIA operations officer, in a tweet said the “dirty bomb” messaging from Russia isn’t meant to be “credible” but an “escalation warning to the West of Putin’s seriousness to use tactical nukes.” London said it’s also designed to be a preparation or galvanization “of Russia’s internal audience and show of strength for what may come.”
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