Russia has threatened to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Image: Screengrab / NTV / Getty

Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called his counterparts in the US, UK, France and Turkey on Sunday to warn that Ukraine could be preparing to use a “dirty bomb.” Is Shoigu also warning that the Russian army might be pushed into using nuclear weapons?

A dirty bomb is commonly understood as a conventional explosive packed with radioactive materials. The purpose of such a weapon is to contaminate an area making it uninhabitable.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reportedly told his Russian counterpart that Ukraine was not preparing a dirty bomb and warned that Russia could be making the unsubstantiated claim to try and justify its own use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the Russian press has published a recent stream of articles featuring similar warnings, replete with claims that Russia has plenty of intelligence on Ukraine’s intentions and its assessments show Ukraine is capable of producing radiological weapons.

An immediate observation of Moscow’s latest political tactic is that the Russians are increasingly desperate on the battlefield. Ukrainian forces are pressing in on Kherson, a city Russia is now evacuating that is not far from Odesa.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu with Vladimir Putin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By any measure, the loss of Kherson would be a major blow to the Putin government. Russia’s general in overall charge of Ukraine operations, Sergey Surovikin, has already warned that painful decisions will need to be made. 

While his statement was initially interpreted to mean that Russia might have to pull back its forces, Surovikin could also have been preparing the ground for using tactical nuclear weapons.

For weeks now there have been warnings in the West – particularly coming from the US and echoed by NATO headquarters in Brussels – that Russia might opt to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. 

These warnings do not appear to have been based on any solid intelligence on preparations for a Russian nuclear attack, but it is also the case that many Russian missiles are dual-capable, as are some of its aircraft, so they can carry out a nuclear strike on short notice.  

In November 1995, Chechen rebels contacted a Russian TV station and boasted that they were preparing radiological weapons. A single bomb was found buried in Moscow’s Ismailovsky park. The bomb was made of dynamite and highly radioactive Cesium-137. 

The origin of the radioactive material was never identified, and some believe that the bomb that was discovered was a provocation against the Chechens ginned up by Russia’s intelligence organs.

Other attempts at radiological bombs were launched by Islamic terrorists including one in the United States in 2002 when an al-Qaeda operative, Jose Padilla, was arrested for plotting to build and detonate a radiological weapon. However, Padilla was sent to trial on other terror-related charges and prosecutors never raised the radiological weapon’s threat in court.

At the time of Ukrainian independence, Kiev held about one-third of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. It included “130 UR-100N intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) with six warheads each, 46 RT-23 Molodets ICBMs with ten warheads apiece, as well as 33 heavy bombers, totaling approximately 1,700 warheads.”

In 1994 (three years after voting for independence from Russia), Ukraine agreed to destroy the weapons and received security assurances under the Budapest Memorandum whose signatories were Ukraine, Russia, the US and the UK. That memorandum provides in paragraph 4 that:

The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon State party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.

After Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, Russia deployed some nuclear-capable systems on that territory.

Radioactive materials cannot be physically destroyed. Usually, they are buried underground in caverns and secured so that radioactive material cannot leach into the soil or water table.

One distinct possibility, once Kherson is evacuated, might be for Russia to set off a radiological weapon and blame Ukraine, leading to Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons.

The current military situation in Ukraine suggests that Russia’s “special military operation” potentially faces serious reversals and Russian forces might even be defeated on the battlefield. In Moscow that would spell big trouble for Putin, who bet on the success of the invasion and the superiority of Russia’s military.

Ukrainian T-72AV with a white cross during the 2022 Ukrainian Kharkiv counteroffensive. Photo: Wikimedia

Russia’s military has performed poorly and taken huge losses. Russia’s weapons technology has been shown to be well behind the times and Russian tactics, most of which replicate World War II military operations, are not suitable for modern warfare and high-tech weaponry. Russia’s armor losses have been staggering.

The highly advertised Russian air force has not achieved air superiority and many warplanes have been shot down. Russia’s air defenses have not been effective and Ukraine has managed to keep at least some of its warplanes in the fight.

Most worrying for Putin is the high casualty rate, which is quite a bit higher than Russian losses in Afghanistan. Between 1979 and 1989 about 15,000 Russian soldiers and airmen were killed in Afghanistan. Although there are no definitive numbers for Ukraine, in nine months Russia is believed to have lost between 50,000 and 60,000 warfighters.

The defeat in Afghanistan played a big role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Looming over Putin is the danger that the forces that currently support him may decide he has plunged the country into a sea of troubles and decide the best solution is to replace him and his cronies and even dump most of the top officers heading Russia’s military.

Another possible scenario is that the Russian army will rise up and throw Putin out and take immediate steps to end the war in Ukraine. This is plausible because the Russian army’s performance has been poor and Russian military leaders face dismissal or worse.

Against that threatening backdrop, it seems possible that Putin and his generals will escalate the threat to Ukraine and use tactical nuclear weapons. Certainly, Russia’s army leaders know that NATO could respond tit for tat, which would wipe out Russia’s army in Ukraine or worse.

Shoigu’s call thus can be read not as a warning about Ukraine but about the danger Russia’s army will be pushed into using nuclear weapons. 

Stephen Bryen is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and the Yorktown Institute.