Moscow appears to be preparing ground for further escalation with discredited claims that Kyiv may use ‘dirty’ bomb
Kremlin is likely to be weighing how to respond to yet another anticipated battlefield defeat. Photograph: AP
Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, has told western counterparts that the war in Ukraine is heading for an “uncontrolled escalation” amid evidence that the Kremlin is weighing how to respond to yet another anticipated battlefield defeat around the key southern city of Kherson.
With Russian troops setting up new defences for a fresh Ukrainian offensive in Luhansk in the country’s east as well, Moscow appears to be preparing the ground for yet further escalation, with discredited claims that Kyiv may be preparing to use a dirty bomb as a “false-flag operation” to blame Russia.
Refuting the Russian allegation, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview on Monday: “The allegation that Ukraine is preparing to use dirty bombs in Ukraine is absurd.”
Russian officials – including Vladimir Putin – have repeatedly hinted that the Kremlin may be prepared to use a nuclear weapon as part of its so-far failed brinkmanship to discourage Kyiv and its western allies, which have been supplying Ukraine with modern weapons, intelligence and training.
However, the Kremlin continued to push the claim of a Ukrainian dirty bomb on Monday, with Igor Kirilov, head of the Armed Forces radioactive weapons unit, saying that troops had been mobilised to work in a radioactively contaminated environment. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the threat was real. “Their distrust of the information that has been provided by the Russian side doesn’t mean that the threat of using such a dirty bomb doesn’t exist,” he told reporters.
Shoigu discussed the “rapidly deteriorating situation” in phone calls with his British, French and Turkish counterparts and also spoke by phone with the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, for the second time in three days. The Pentagon said Austin told Shoigu he “rejected any pretext for Russian escalation”.
Without providing evidence, Shoigu said Ukraine could escalate by using a “dirty bomb” – conventional explosives laced with radioactive material.
Analysts have noted that a “dirty bomb” would have little utility for Ukraine on the battlefield, not least when its forces are currently retaking large swathes of territory by conventional means, instead interpreting Russia’s claim as a pretext for its own planned escalation.
In an overnight address, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said the Russian accusation was a sign that Moscow was planning such an attack itself and would blame Ukraine.
“If Russia calls and says that Ukraine is allegedly preparing something, it means one thing: Russia has already prepared all this,” Zelenskiy said. “So when today the Russian minister of defence organises a phone carousel and calls foreign ministers with stories about the so-called ‘dirty’ nuclear bomb, everyone understands everything well. Understands who is the source of everything dirty that can be imagined in this war.”
World 'will not swallow' Russian lies about Ukrainian dirty bomb, says Zelenskiy – video
Shoigu’s comments fit a worrying pattern of escalatory actions by Moscow as the tide of the war has turned against it, most recently with its targeting of civilian infrastructure with missiles and “kamikaze” drones after Kyiv’s attack on the Kerch strait bridge in Crimea earlier this month.
In a joint statement after the talks, Britain, France and the US said they were committed to supporting Ukraine “for as long as it takes” and rejected Russia’s warning about a “dirty bomb”.
“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,” they said. “The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation.”
Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia and the International Institute for Strategic Affairs, commented on Twitter: “It’s Russia that is escalating: attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, apparent attacks on western connectivity infrastructure, and mining of Novaya Kakhovka dam. And playing with nuclear fire in Zaporizhzhiya [nuclear power plant] for months.
“So [it’s] hard to see these calls as anything other than Shoigu either doubling down on Putin’s bluffs, or preparing way for Russian nuclear use. Yes, nuclear (ie fission [rather than a dirty bomb]). A dirty bomb would breach nuclear taboo but not achieve significant effects.”
He added: “I worry there is too much motivated reasoning in dismissing possible Russian nuclear use. We don’t want it to happen, and/or we don’t see the point, therefore it won’t. But Russia faces logic of dwindling choices as it loses. Escalation of all kinds more likely.”
The latest threats from Moscow come as Russian forces appear to be preparing to withdraw from the east bank of the Dnieper River near Kherson, ordering a fresh evacuation of civilians, and laying the ground for the potential loss of the city of Kherson itself.
About 25,000 people have been transported from the area since Tuesday, the Interfax news agency said. However, Russia-installed authorities in Kherson reported insufficient vessels to ferry people across the river at one point on Sunday, blaming a “sharp increase in the number of people wishing to leave”.
The Russian education minister, Sergei Kravtsov, said in a video message: “The situation today is difficult. It’s vital to save your lives. It won’t be for long. You will definitely return.”
Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s military spy chief, warned that the reported transportation of civilians from Kherson was part of a Russian information campaign. While Russia is moving financial structures, equipment, vulnerable residents and wounded people from Kherson, he said, it is also reinforcing defences.
“They are creating the illusion that all is lost. Yet at the same time they are moving new military units in and preparing to defend the streets of Kherson,” he told the Ukrainska Pravda online media outlet.
On Monday, the region’s Russian-installed administration announced the formation of a local militia, saying that all men remaining in the city could join.
Russia accused western countries of having “essentially stolen” its gold and foreign exchange reserves via sanctions.
Asked by reporters about an EU proposal to transfer frozen Russian assets to Ukraine, Peskov said: “In general, a part large of our assets have been essentially stolen by specific western countries.”
(c) The Guardian 2022