Ukraine fears that Russia could be about to use a “dirty bomb” as the Kremlin continues to ramp up tensions in eastern Europe. Moscow’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, suggested that Ukraine could use such a weapon while he was in talks with British counterpart Ben Wallace last week. Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, says Shoigu’s words could indicate that Russia is planning to blame any use of the deadly weapon on Kyiv. Many experts have warned in recent months that Vladimir Putin could turn to nuclear missiles or similar weapons in order to compensate for his military’s poor showing in the Russo-Ukrainian war.
What is a ‘dirty bomb’, how much damage could one do, and would Russia use one against Ukraine?
A dirty bomb is an explosive device that contains radioactive material. Following an explosion, the radiation can remain in an environment for years, threatening the lives of anyone who remains in the targeted area.
How much damage such a weapon could do remains unclear because a dirty bomb has never been used. But, previous instances involving radioactive devices have shown that dirty bombs could have devastating consequences if detonated.
Tensions between Russia and groups from the republic of Chechyna only intensified, leading to the start of the Second Chechen War in 1999, a conflict that would last for 20 years.
In 1998, fears of a dirty bomb attack were stoked once more when security services found a container filled with radioactive materials attached to an explosive mine.
The device was found near a railway track in Argun, a town near the Chechen capital Grozny. Once again, the Chechen separatists were suspected of carrying out the bomb threat.
In September 1999, a group of thieves tried to steal radioactive materials from the Radon Special Combine chemical factory in Grozny, Chechnya. After holding the materials for just a few minutes, one man died and the other collapsed due to the exposure.
The survivor was later hospitalised and arrested, but the incident was never discussed publicly by the authorities.
While Russia has been at the heart of many dirty bomb threats over the years, the war in Afghanistan also caused concern in the West. In 2003, British intelligence warned that al-Qaeda had tried to make a dirty bomb in Herat under the leadership of Osama bin Laden.
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As for how much damage a dirty bomb could do when actually detonated, experts believe that the Chornobyl disaster in 1986 could show how deadly a radioactive weapon could be. It is believed that the nearest city to the plant, Pripyat, will not be habitable for another 20,000 years due to the radiation still lingering there to this day.
Security expert Philip Ingram told Sky News recently that Russia could be planning to use a dirty bomb in Ukraine.
He said: “What Mr Shoigu is doing is testing the waters for a probable false flag event of some description.
“They know that if something with the nuclear word is used, the West will come down very, very hard with conventional support to help Ukrainian forces on the ground.”
The UK, France and the US have also published a joint statement this week warning that Russia could be plotting a false flag attack with a dirty bomb.
It read: “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.”