I n the span of a few hours on Sunday, the senior-most Russian defense authorities–Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and General Gennady Gerasimov–called their counterparts in the U.S., U.K., France, and Turkey, with the same message–Ukraine is preparing to detonate a so-called “dirty bomb”— high explosive-wrapped radiological material, designed to contaminate large areas with deadly radioactive isotopes.
Russia is not only concerned about the immediate impact of Ukraine detonating such a devise in terms of the harm that would be done to people and the environment, but also about the potential for such an event to be used by Ukraine’s western allies to directly intervene militarily in the ongoing conflict, similar to what occurred in Syria when allegations about the use of Sarin nerve agent by the Syrian government against civilians were used by the U.S., U.K., and France to justify an attack on Syrian military and infrastructure targets. (It turned out that the allegations of Sarin use were false; the jury is still out about the use of commercial chlorine as a weapon.)
Russia is to raise the matter at the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, Reuters reported.
In return, Western governments on Monday accused Russia of plans to deploy a dirty bomb. “We’ve been very clear with the Russians … about the severe consequences that would result from nuclear use,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price.
There would be consequences for Russia whether it uses a dirty bomb or a nuclear bomb.
Ukraine is requesting that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) send a team to Ukraine to investigate.
For all the press attention that has been given to the possibility of a “dirty bomb” being used in Ukraine, history shows that despite the hype, a “dirty bomb” is not a weapon that is either easily produced or procured or causes the kind of mass casualties its proponents hope for.
The current “dirty bomb” scare isn’t Russia’s first encounter with the concept. In November 1995 a “dirty bomb” comprised of high explosives and cesium was uncovered in Moscow’s Ismailovsky Park, and in December 1998 another cache of radioactive material was found attached to an explosive charge near a railroad track in Chechnya. Both devices were disarmed by Russian security forces.
In May 2002 F.B.I. agents arrested Jose Padilla, an American citizen who converted to Islam, as he returned to the United States from a trip that took him to Egypt, Pakistan, and eventually Afghanistan, where, sometime in 1999-2000, he allegedly met with Abu Zubaydah, Osama Bin Laden’s operations chief. According to Zubaydeh, he and Padilla discussed the possibility of Padilla building and detonating a “dirty bomb” inside the U.S.
While Al Qaeda had apparently drafted plans for such a weapon–and in fact had accumulated radioactive medical isotopes for use in a “dirty bomb” (these materials were seized by the U.N. in 2002)–none of this information was shared with Padilla, who arrived in the U.S. with neither a weapon design nor means to accomplish the task. He was tried and convicted, nonetheless.
The closest the world has come to the actual production and employment of an actual “dirty bomb” came in 1987, when Iraq built and tested four devices designed to spread a cloud of radioactive dust for the express purpose of killing humans–in this case, Iranian soldiers (Iraq was, at that time, engaged in a long and bloody conflict with Iran.)
The device in question–an air-dropped bomb measuring 12 feet in length and weighing more than a ton–was, according to documents turned over by Iraq to United Nations inspectors, intended to be dropped on troop areas, industrial centers, airports, railroad stations, bridges and “any other areas the command decrees.”
According to the document, the bomb was intended to induce radiation sickness which would “weaken enemy units from the standpoint of health and inflict losses that would be difficult to explain, possibly producing a psychological effect.” Death, the document noted, would occur “within two to six weeks.”
The Iraqis chose zirconium as their radioactive source. The Iraqis had zirconium in quantities due to its use in incendiary weapons. By irradiating zirconium flakes in the Iraqi nuclear reactor located in Tuwaitha, the Iraqis produced the radioactive isotope Zirconium 95, which had a half-life of 75.5 days, meaning the bomb would have to be used soon after it was manufactured.
The weapon was tested three times in 1987, including a final test involving two actual “dirty bombs” dropped by aircraft. The weapons were a bust, loosing their radioactive properties shortly after detonation. In fact, one would need to stand within ten feet of the point of detonation of the bomb to absorb a lethal dose of radiation, something the high explosive charge of the bomb itself made moot. The project was abandoned.
The Iraqi results were replicated by Israel which, between 2010 and 2014 carried out 20 explosive tests of actual “dirty bombs” in the Negev desert. The research found that the radiation was dispersed in a manner that the danger posed to humans was not substantial, concluding that “the main impact of such an attack would be psychological.”
False Flag, or False Alert?
The Russians are serious about the threat posed by the possibility of a Ukrainian “dirty bomb.” While the history of “dirty bombs” does not point to a threat on the scale or scope of an actual nuclear weapon, one can “worst case” a scenario which provides the potential for the significant loss of life and property from the radioactive fallout such a weapon could produce. Such an outcome would be a disaster which Russia and, presumably, the Western allies of Ukraine would like to prevent.
So far, the Russian allegations appear to have fallen on deaf ears, with Ukraine dismissing the claims as absurd, and non-government affiliated western analysts flipping the script, accusing Russia of actually planning a false flag attack on Ukraine using a “dirty bomb” of its own construction.
But the reality is that Russia takes its senior military-to-military connections with its western counterparts very seriously, given the role such contacts play in the kind of deconfliction cooperation that keeps small-scale incidents from exploding into war. The possibility that Russia would deliberately corrupt this communication channel with disinformation is highly unlikely. Russia appears to be legitimately concerned about the possibility of Ukraine building and using a “dirty bomb”, so much so that it has taken the unprecedented step of reaching out to multiple senior Western defense authorities to prevent such an occurrence from happening.
If, at the end of the day, the appropriate phone calls are made by the West, and Ukraine backs down, then Russia will have succeeded. And if it turns out that the Russian information is wrong, there was no harm from the effort. However, if Russia is correct, and Ukraine not only is preparing to use a “dirty bomb”, but detonates one, and the West did nothing to prevent it, then Russia is on the record for having provided the West with due warning.
Scott Ritter is a former U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD. His most recent book is Disarmament in the Time of Perestroika, published by Clarity Press.