As has been widely reported, Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, initiated calls with European and American counterparts during which he suggested that Ukraine was likely to detonate a dirty bomb. A dirty bomb is a conventional explosive lashed to radioactive material. There’s no nuclear reaction involved; the effect of such a bomb is to disperse radioactive material over a wide area. An example might be a conventional high-explosive charge detonated in proximity to spent fuel rods at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant that is currently under Russian control.
Needless to say, this arch intimation from the Russians has sparked alarm and speculation. It’s also (mostly) needless to say that the Ukrainians are contemplating no such thing. Why would the Ukrainians irradiate their homeland when they are winning the conventional war against Russia? The idea is absurd.
One of the more common theories making the rounds is that Russia is setting up a pretext for use of standard military nuclear weapons. I think this is very unlikely.
I think the aim of this gambit is more prosaic and more obvious than laying the groundwork for a nuclear strike, yet I am not seeing much mention of what I think is Putin’s goal here: He’s trying to weaken the European coalition opposing his invasion.
There might be some small part of the European population, maybe in Hungary, say, that could be made to believe that the Ukrainians could be responsible for a dirty bomb blast in Europe, but I don’t think that even Putin’s inner circle is delusional enough to believe that many in Europe would fall for this ruse.
Rather, I think Putin is probably calculating that a radioactive cloud over Europe (or the prospect of one) might raise the already high cost of the war to unacceptable levels for the likes of France and Germany, leading those countries to resume their lobbying campaigns to pressure Ukraine into surrender. Putin undoubtedly understands that he doesn’t even need to carry through on his threat, at least not now, in order to achieve much of the effect he is seeking. I’m sure that this not-so-veiled nuclear blackmail has already produced some of the spinal gelatinization the Kremlin seeks.
Europe has been surprisingly (to me, at least) stout in staring down Putin’s overt threats of first use of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. It seems likely that the West has come to the consensus view that Putin understands that such a move would be seen by the West as a world-changing event that would bring down the Putin regime (and surely much else besides). It seems likely that he is hoping that the threat of a dirty bomb is more credible because, by blurring some lines, a Western response might be more confused.
If ever there was a time for clarity and resolve in European capitals, this is it. The West must make clear that any dirty bomb blast in Ukraine will be seen as a nuclear first-use strike by Russia, no different from a tactical nuclear strike.