On Friday Russia’s Defence Minister Shoigu made a telephone call to his US counterpart Defence Secretary, Austin) and then on Sunday series of telephone calls to his counterparts in the US (Austin), the UK (Wallace), France (Lecornu) and Turkey (Akar). In the first call to the US Shoigu discussed not only the situation in Ukraine but also “international security problems” (quite possibly a reference to the NATO annual series of nuclear preparedness drills that started on 17 October). Russia is also due to start its’ own nuclear readiness drills shortly.
The NATO drills though are a “routine, recurring training activity” that had been planned before Russia invaded Ukraine. “It would send a very wrong signal if we suddenly now cancelled a routine, long-time planned exercise because of the war in Ukraine. We need to understand that NATO’s firm, predictable behaviour, our military strength, is the best way to prevent escalation,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
It also happens that these drills, by both NATO and Russia, are taking place after statements from Moscow of being ready to resort to the use on nuclear weapons after the recent series of military “setbacks” (defeats?) in Ukraine.
On Sunday Shoigu then called the US again, plus the UK, France and Turkey. These calls were all reportedly requested by Moscow. During the calls to all but the US, Shoigu raised the concern of “uncontrolled escalation” over the situation in Ukraine and the “concern about possible provocations by Ukraine with the use of a “dirty bomb””.
What is a “dirty bomb”?
A “dirty bomb” is a mix of explosives, such as dynamite, with radioactive powder or pellets. “A dirty bomb” is not a nuclear weapon nor an atomic bomb. Instead, a dirty bomb uses dynamite or other explosives to scatter radioactive dust, smoke, or other material in order to cause radioactive contamination in the area where detonated. The primary “dirty bomb” is from the explosion, which can cause serious injuries and property damage. The radioactive materials used in a “dirty bomb” would probably not create enough radiation exposure to cause immediate serious illness, except to those people who are very close to the blast site. However, the radioactive dust and smoke spread farther from the blast site and could be dangerous if inhaled.
Whilst Shoigu raised the “concern” there was, it seems, no real foundation or evidence presented as to why, where and how such a weapon would be used. There was also no substantive explanation as to where the “concern” arose from. Russian press has also made “unsubstantiated reference” to Ukraine detonating a “low yield nuclear bomb on its own territory to damage Moscow’s international standing” (forgetting maybe that Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in the 1990s’ in return for guarantees on its’ borders (which Moscow signed)). Maybe an inference that the West would supply the “bomb” (whether “dirty” or nuclear)?
Accordingly, the reaction of the 3 Defence Ministers was almost the same (although there has been no formal statement form the Turkish Defence Minister) which was to treat the “statement” from Shoigu as being “ungrounded and without evidence”. This has led to speculation that this may be ground laying for a “false flag” action by Russia to blame Ukraine. This was also the statement by President Zelensky and the Ukrainian Foreign Minister stated that the “allegation was a Russian pretext for such an action”. It is concerning that if this is setting the ground that it is at such a high level.
Following the series of “setbacks” that the Russian Armed Forces have suffered (and potentially continue to suffer) in the East and South of Ukraine the Russian military command structure has “lost face” and is confronted with a series of even more embarrassing defeats, a mobilisation that has not gone to plan, continued disruption of supply lines and a tough couple of months ahead (witnessed by the “evacuation” of elements from their first lines of defence in Kherson Oblast across the Dnipro river) and the “accusations” that Ukraine would destroy the dam at the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant to flooding and widen the Dnipro River. Ukraine has no interest destroying the dam and every interest in preserving the energy supply in newly freed parts of Kherson Oblast despite attacks on other infrastructure. All of this has to be explained to the Russian populace by the military command…not easy!
A ”false flag” attack could save face, and if blamed on the West supplying the weaponry, increase support in Russia for the military and the “Special Military Operation”. If there were more Ukrainian advances and successes then there may be some questioning over the command of the “operation” and a diminishing of support. There are some potentially bad outcomes; is Russia is looking at some form of “excuse” to use a nuclear weapon of some sort? Maybe on the front lines – although the effect would be more symbolic that effective if a tactical nuclear weapon (shoch and awe), or maybe a specific strike with a nuclear weapon to “decapitate” the authorities in Kyiv? It may also be an indication that Russia is looking at a “stand-off” to see what can be done with the influence of Western support to get Ukraine at the negotiating table (unlikely to succeed at the moment as Western support has said that it is up to Ukraine if and when they negotiate).
Irrespective what is clear is that the situation will remain extremely volatile in terms of geo-political (Russia/West) relations and the situation on the ground will remain intense from the military perspective and continued attacks on cities and infrastructure, that are intended to demoralise the population could have the opposite effect and reaffirm Ukrainian “identity and solidarity” – another “under-estimation” by Moscow?