Moscow is accusing Kyiv of plotting to detonate a “dirty bomb” in a false-flag attack on its own territory, despite not providing any evidence to prove the claim.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke with his counterparts in London, Paris and Ankara, warning of “uncontrolled escalation” from the Ukrainian side. In particular, he claimed that Ukraine was planning to detonate a “dirty bomb”, a mix of explosives with radioactive material, or a “small nuclear bomb”, to blame Russia and damage Moscow’s global standing.
Kyiv and Ukraine’s Western allies have denounced the accusations as lies. US National Security Council Spokeswoman Adrienne Watson described Shoigu’s statement as "transparently false", Radio Free Europe (RFE) reported. Meanwhile, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said the claims are likely an attempt to “slow or suspend Western military aid to Ukraine,'' labelling Shoigu’s phone calls “scare-mongering”.
Russian media outlets have spread Shoigu's claim and said that Ukraine is planning other attacks, including destroying the Kakhovka and Dnipro dams and blowing up all six units of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP).
“In order to accuse the Russian Federation of a war crime, the Kyiv regime is preparing a bloody provocation with the death of its own civilians,” the Russian Ministry of Defence said on Telegram, claiming that in addition to the “dirty bomb”, Kyiv aims to create a possible technological disaster at the ZNPP.
The rhetoric has troubled leaders and experts who believe Russia could be planning to conduct a false-flag operation. Dara Massicot, a military expert at the Washington-based think-tank RAND Corp., said the claim “reads like Russian false-flag groundwork”, noting that it was “troubling that it’s happening at the defence minister level”, RFE reported.
In response to Shoigu, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy released a video address. He dismissed the accusation and said: “If Russia calls and says that Ukraine is allegedly preparing something, it means one thing: Russia has already prepared all this. I believe that now the world should react as harshly as possible.”
Nevertheless, the ISW believes that a Russian nuclear attack is unlikely and the rhetoric is just a continuation of a long-standing Russian propaganda campaign that has been in play since the first stages of the full-scale war. Even in his pre-invasion speech on February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed Ukraine was preparing for a nuclear attack against Russia.
“Shoigu’s comments are thus unlikely to presage a nuclear terror attack against one or more major Ukrainian population centres or critical infrastructure in hopes of shocking Ukraine into surrender or the West into cutting off aid to Ukraine,” the ISW stated.
Shoigu’s phone call comes days after Zelenskiy expressed concern that Russian troops will blow up the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant (HPP) in the occupied part of the Kherson region. Zelenskiy claimed last week that Russian troops had mined the plant’s dam and aggregates, Ukrainian Pravda reported. Prime Minister Denys Shymhal announced that Ukraine is watching Russian troops “prepare for another terrorist attack”, which could result in thousands of victims and the flooding of tens of settlements.
With Russian media pushing the narrative that Ukraine is planning an attack on the HPP, Kyiv called on the UN and the EU to send an international observer mission to monitor the plant. The ISW believes that in spreading this narrative, Moscow is laying the grounds for a Russian strike on the dam, which the Kremlin will blame on Ukraine whilst using the ensuing flood to cover their military failures and retreat in the Kherson region.
Kyiv’s request follows a mission from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to the ZNPP in September amidst fears of a nuclear disaster after both Moscow and Kyiv accused the other of shelling the plant. The mission noted “the presence of Russian military personnel, vehicles and equipment at various places at the ZNPP”, in a report published last month and demanded Russian troops leave the plant.
So far, the plant remains occupied. Russian media is instead spreading fears that Kyiv will attack the ZNPP, resulting in a widespread nuclear fallout that will have an impact on the whole of Europe. No evidence was presented to back this claim.