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Tuesday, 31 January 2023
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The Spectre of the Dirty Bomb
James Denselow

Putin's military chief, Sergei Shoigu, has been hitting the phones somewhat surprisingly engaging with his military counterparts in the UK, USA and France. His central message was that Ukraine's military is planning some sort of attack using a conventional explosive that includes radioactive material, but is not a nuclear weapon, since Ukraine doesn't possess nuclear weapons

In response Paris, Washington and London issued a joint statement claiming 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”

There is little doubt that we are in a phase of deep uncertainty and escalation in the Ukraine war. The combination of Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive, Russia’s annexing referenda’s and partial mobilisation, kamikaze drones attacking Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and an impending battle for Kherson, the only city that Moscow has managed to capture, all happening in the weeks before a Ukrainian winter supposedly puts events into a deep freeze.

Added into this toxic mix is more and more talk of the use of nuclear weapons and now the prospect of a ‘dirty bomb’. So what is such a device and what was a senior Russian official talking about it supposed to achieve? A dirty bomb has no exact definition but is essentially a hybrid device that signals a willingness to escalate and go far beyond the rules and norm of conventional war but that exists below the threshold for a nuclear conflict. 

If one were to be used the threat of radiation, particularly to vulnerable civilian groups unequipped with protective equipment, could likely sow mass panic if used near population centres. The narrative Shoigu was suggested was that such a device would be exploded on Ukrainian controlled territory as a means of persuading further Western military support to Kiev. The alternative thesis is that it would be a ‘false flag’ attack, a concept much talked about but seldom seen on a large scale whereby violence becomes theatre and a chance to incriminate your enemy through your own actions.

By rejecting the possibility of Kiev committing such a tactic, have the Western states called Moscow’s bluff or make it more likely for such a device to be used and for the predicted blame to be apportioned regardless of the evidence? Let us not forget that there was not much in the form of actual evidence of the referendums being welcomed by a supportive population in the East of Ukraine but that didn’t stop Russia claiming a overwhelming mandate. Truth or facts only matter so much within the narratives of Russia’s way of war. 

Yet the use of a dirty bomb would certainly escalate what is already a devastatingly costly conflict for both sides and for the world far beyond. It may not change any immediate part of the equation in the short term beyond those it kills and forces from their homes. However, it would signal further loosening of restraints in a conflict already marked by supposedly over 35,000 war crimes and counting. 

Its use, if clearly ascribed to Moscow, would also pose the question as to what Ukraine’s allies would do in response. The rumour around any use of Russian nuclear weapons is that the US has committed to destroy Russia’s conventional forces fighting within Ukraine. A dirty bomb whose fingerprints are not as obvious as a fully nuclear device could lead to a number of things ranging from a vast increase in arms support (both quantities and types) or even more drastic attempts to isolate Russia economically. 

Essentially it would pour fuel over a raging fire and make the prospect of nuclear weapons use, already the highest since the “Cuban Missile Crisis” according to US President Biden, even more likely. It would reflect Russia’s desperation but also its commitment to use escalation as a tactic of extracting itself from its mistakes made to date. It would mark a new and dangerous chapter in the story of human warfare and we’d all be the worse off from living in a time when such a device is considered a weapon to use.


BY: James Denselow