Russia Envoy Talks Nuclear Risk of Ukraine 'Dirty Bomb' U.S. Denies Exists

In comments shared exclusively with Newsweek, the Russian ambassador to the United States outlined the potentially catastrophic risks of Ukraine using a dirty bomb in the midst of the ongoing conflict with Russia, something he argued Kyiv was plotting, even as both Ukrainian and U.S. officials vehemently rejected the claim.

The issue is set to be debated Tuesday at the United Nations, and, as rival arguments are prepared, Ambassador Anatoly Antonov addressed the people of the U.S. directly.

"We urge the American public to reflect on this question," Antonov said. "Is this price too high to settle political scores with us?"

Russian officials have attributed such plans to Ukraine since the beginning of the war, with Konstantin Gavrilov, who leads Russia's arms control delegation in Vienna, asserting in March that an alleged Ukrainian "dirty bomb" plot served as one of the reasons Moscow launched its "special military operation" against the neighboring nation less than a month earlier.

And while no attacks nor evidence of such designs have emerged, these accusations have taken on a new urgency since Sunday, when Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held his second phone call with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in just three days, along with conversations with counterparts from France, Turkey and the United Kingdom. The Russian Defense Ministry doubled down on the claim the following day, setting off a wave of denials from U.S. and Ukrainian officials.

Following dismissals from the State Department, including a joint statement from the U.S., France and the U.K. rejecting the Russian claim, National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby told reporters Monday that "there is nothing to the Russian allegation."

Kirby said President Joe Biden's administration was "concerned" about why Moscow would make such an accusation but sees no evidence of any "dirty bomb" activity from either side of the conflict.

"We continue to see nothing in the way of preparations by the Russian side for the use of nuclear weapons," he said, "and nothing with respect to the potential use of a dirty bomb at this point."

But the White House has frequently accused the Kremlin of accusing others of provocations it planned to stage itself, something Antonov roundly rejected.

"We are obviously dealing with a complete atrophy of critical thinking," Antonov said. "In their maniacal desire to slander Russia and whitewash Ukraine, Western countries are ready to risk the safety, well-being, and even lives of their own citizens."

Ukraine, personnel, train, for, Zaporizhzhia, nuclear, emergency
Ukrainian Emergency Ministry rescuers attend an exercise in the city of Zaporizhzhia on August 17, in case of a possible nuclear incident at the Russia-held Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station located near the city, which has since been annexed into the Russian Federation following an internationally unrecognized referendum held in late September. DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images

The concept of a "dirty bomb" is often used to describe a device that combines conventional explosives and radioactive materials that are then dispersed to cause harm to the public. Fears of such a relatively low-cost and potentially deadly attack being launched against population centers have persisted for decades, and groups and individuals tied to ideologies as varied as white supremacy, Islamist fundamentalism and Chechen separatism have reportedly plotted to do so.

"The use of a 'dirty bomb' is far from amateur sabotage," Antonov said. "The detonation of a radiological explosive device will have a scale comparable to the explosion of a low-yield nuclear weapon. The blast wave will disperse radioactive substances over the area of up to several thousand square meters. Contaminated territories will turn into an exclusion zone for 30-50 years."

And while there is no public record of any "dirty bomb" ever having been set off against the public, plenty of evidence exists as to the harmful effects of radiation outside the use of nuclear weapons, including the two worst-ever nuclear disasters that took place in Ukraine's Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 and Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011.

The effects of the Chernobyl meltdown, which took place under Soviet rule, still linger today in Ukraine. And new anxieties have arisen around the world as that site, along with Europe's largest nuclear site, Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, now under Russian control, became mired in the ongoing war.

"We are concerned by the fact that Kiev has the necessary manufacturing base, as well as scientific and technical capacity," Antonov said. "There are three operating nuclear power plants with nine storage pools containing up to 1,500 tons of uranium oxide enriched to 1.5%."

"At the Chernobyl nuclear power plant there are fuel assemblies containing uranium-238 in the amount of 22 thousand units," he added, "as well as stocks of uranium-235 and plutonium-239, which are the main component of a nuclear charge."

Citing the Russian Defense Ministry, Antonov said "the task of creating a 'dirty bomb' was given to two Ukrainian organizations," without naming them, and said that "the work is at the concluding stage."

And while the U.S. and Ukraine have said it was Russia that employed a strategy of "false flag" conspiracy attacks, Antonov said, in the case of a potential "dirty bomb" attack, "the goal is to accuse Russia of using a weapon of mass destruction and launch an unprecedented anti-Russian information campaign."

The Russian envoy also warned of "an even more dangerous scenario being studied by Kiev," an alleged plan to stage "a provocation at nuclear power plants located in the territory controlled by Ukraine as well as the creation of an emergency situation resulting from shelling of the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant by Ukrainian troops."

"This could lead to an accident comparable to the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters which the world has not yet recovered from," Antonov added.

IAEA, chief, Rafael, Grossi, visits, Zaporizhzhia, NPP
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Secretary General Rafael Grossi talks to reporters on a road outside Zaporizhzhia city, after his visit to the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southern Ukraine on September 1. The head of the UN nuclear agency said the "physical integrity" of the site had been "violated" following frequent shelling, which both Moscow and Kyiv have blamed on one another. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

Upon his team's first visit to the site, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Secretary General Rafael Grossi warned last month that the "physical integrity" of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant had been "violated" after it was subject to shelling that Moscow and Kyiv have blamed on one another.

In response to the recent Russian allegations and a written request from Ukrainian officials, Grossi said Monday that all safeguards appeared to be intact, and there was no evidence of undeclared nuclear activities taking place at the nuclear sites in question, though "the IAEA is preparing to visit the locations in the coming days" for further inspections.

Antonov expressed frustration over a lack of action on the part of Western officials, especially the U.S., which he argued was enabling Ukraine through economic and military aid.

"Instead of putting pressure on the Ukrainian wards who have completely lost their minds, Washington and its allies provide them with financial and military assistance, becoming, in fact, sponsors and accomplices of nuclear terrorism," Antonov said, "In Russophobic hysteria, they follow the formula that any means are good, including absolutely insane and inhuman, when used against our country."

Commenting on the increasingly stark nuclear rhetoric emanating from Moscow and Washington over the potentially broader implications of the post-Cold War low in their relations 60 years after the brinksmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Antonov said the Kremlin had no plans to use similar tactics in Ukraine.

"We have repeatedly stated that Russia has not ever intended and is not going to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine," Antonov said. "In no circumstances and never have any of our political leaders or representatives of the military mentioned the possibility of resorting to weapons of mass destruction."

But as Biden himself accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of threatening "Armageddon" over the war in Ukraine, Antonov said that "our appeals to change their mind fall on deaf ears of the Western hotheads."

"Therefore, we are increasingly forced to turn to the public," he added. "Independent media and experts are, in fact, the last opportunity to open everyone's eyes to what is indeed happening and shed the light on the danger of Western adventures leading to irreversible consequences and mass deaths of innocent civilians."