The US and Nato allies remained concerned about the risk of a nuclear escalation in Ukraine on Tuesday, despite a US official telling reporters the previous evening that there was no indication Russia planned to use a nuclear device in the country.
Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shogui called his counterparts in the US, the UK, France and Turkey on Sunday, claiming that Ukraine was planning to use a “dirty bomb” — a bomb rigged with radioactive material that is dispersed on detonation.
The US and UK swiftly rejected the claim and said Russia was seeking to escalate the conflict. Experts fear the use of a dirty bomb in Ukraine could provide the pretext for the use of a “tactical nuclear device”, or small nuclear bomb.
In turn, that could put Nato and Russia on collision course for further escalation — potentially a nuclear war that could eradicate life on earth.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously said he would be willing to use nuclear arms in Ukraine, telling a Russian state TV documentary in 2015 that he was “ready” to put atomic weapons on standby during the 2014 Crimea crisis.
In September, he said Russia would use “all weapons systems available” in the crisis, a remark which US President Joe Biden said was a warning of nuclear conflict.
The US has massed intelligence assets to assist Ukraine and determine Russian intentions in the conflict, including satellite surveillance, electronic eavesdropping on communications, cyber and espionage operations.
Experts say these combined efforts could determine whether Russia intends to use a nuclear device.
Moscow has continued its assertion that Ukraine is planning a nuclear escalation with an improvised bomb — which experts say would be millions of times smaller than an actual nuclear weapon.
Russia plans to raise the issue with the UN Security Council, diplomats said on Tuesday.
Dirty bombs have long been feared as a potential weapon of terrorists because their main objective is to sow panic, confusion and anxiety by hurling radioactive dust and smoke into the atmosphere.
Although no dirty bomb attack has ever been recorded, two failed attempts to detonate such a device were reported in the southern Russian province of Chechnya more than two decades ago.
Scott Roecker, an expert on atomic weapons with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, told AFP that any use of a dirty bomb in Ukraine “makes zero sense”.
“There is no battlefield advantage to using a dirty bomb. It wouldn't change the course of the war,” Mr Roecker said.
“I see it as more of a pretext for something, some escalatory step on the Russian side if something were to happen. I don't see any reason that Ukraine would want to use a dirty bomb in this war.”