Russia doubles down on 'dirty bomb' accusation against Ukraine
Meanwhile, European leaders gather in Berlin to start work on a 'new Marshall plan'
The Kremlin on Tuesday repeated its claim that Ukraine plans to use a radioactive "dirty bomb" — an allegation Western allies dismissed as patently absurd and Ukraine said could be pretext for Russia's own alleged plans to detonate such a weapon.
The dismissal of Moscow's warning is "unacceptable in view of the seriousness of the danger that we have talked about," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday. Russia raised the issue at a closed meeting with the UN Security Council.
After that meeting, Russia's deputy UN ambassador Dmitry Polyansky was asked by reporters what evidence Moscow has to back up its allegation.
He replied, "It is intelligence information.… Those who want to reject it as Russian propaganda, they will do it anyway."
Britain's deputy UN ambassador James Kariuki told reporters that "we've seen and heard no new evidence" and the U.K., France and the U.S. — also member countries of the council — made clear "this is a transparently false allegation" and "pure Russian misinformation."
Over the weekend, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu had made unsubstantiated allegations in calls to his British, French, Turkish and U.S. counterparts that Ukraine was preparing to launch a so-called dirty bomb.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said Russia's accusation was a sign that Moscow was planning such an attack and was preparing to shift the blame to Ukraine.
The head of Russia's nuclear, biological and chemical protection troops, Lt.-Gen. Igor Kirillov, told a media briefing on Monday that Ukraine's aim for such an attack would be to blame Russia.
"The aim of the provocation would be to accuse Russia of using a weapon of mass destruction in the Ukrainian military theatre and by that means to launch a powerful anti-Russian campaign in the world, aimed at undermining trust in Moscow."
Kyiv and its Western allies say Moscow's allegation that Ukraine would intentionally make some of its own territory uninhabitable makes no sense, especially at a time when Ukrainian forces are recapturing territory on the battlefield.
What is a dirty bomb?
Dirty bombs do not create a city-flattening atomic explosion but are designed to spread toxic waste. Security experts have worried about them mostly as a form of terrorist weapon to be used on cities to cause havoc among civilians, rather than as a tactical device for use by warring parties in conflict.
Experts say the immediate health impact would probably be limited, since most people in an affected area would be able to escape before experiencing lethal doses of radiation. But the economic damage could be massive from having to evacuate urban areas or even abandon whole cities.
The effects also have the potential to be long-lasting.
In testimony to the U.S. Senate during the Obama administration, physicist Henry Kelly outlined a range of hypothetical scenarios.
A bomb using radioactive caesium from a medical device might require the evacuation of an area of several city blocks, making it unsafe for decades, he said.
A piece of radioactive cobalt from a food irradiation plant could, if blasted apart in a bomb in New York, contaminate a 1,000-square-kilometre area and potentially make the island of Manhattan uninhabitable, Kelly said.
Energoatom, the Ukrainian state enterprise that operates the country's four nuclear power plants, said Russian forces have carried out secret construction work over the last week at the occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.
Energoatom said it "assumes ... [the Russians] are preparing a terrorist act using nuclear materials and radioactive waste stored at [the plant]." It said there were 174 containers at the plant's dry spent fuel storage facility, each of them containing 24 assemblies of spent nuclear fuel.
"Destruction of these containers as a result of explosion will lead to a radiation accident and radiation contamination of several hundred square kilometres of the adjacent territory," the company said.
Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told a news conference that experts from the UN nuclear watchdog would soon be arriving in Ukraine and receive full access, and he called on Moscow to demonstrate the same transparency as Ukraine.
$470B in damages
Meanwhile, German and European Union leaders have gathered experts in Berlin to start work on a "new Marshall plan" for the rebuilding of Ukraine.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Tuesday that the aim is to discuss "how to ensure and how to sustain the financing of the recovery, reconstruction and modernization of Ukraine for years and decades to come."
Scholz, who co-hosted the meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, said he's looking for "nothing less than creating a new Marshall plan for the 21st century — a generational task that must begin now." That was a reference to the U.S.-sponsored plan that helped revive Western European economies after the Second World War.
Von der Leyen said the World Bank puts the cost of damage to Ukraine so far at 350 billion euros ($470 billion Cdn).
She said that, in addition to longer-term help, "Ukraine needs fast rehabilitation right now as we speak" as Russia targets Ukrainian electricity and other infrastructure ahead of the onset of the winter.
Zelenskyy emphasized that point in a video address from Kyiv. He said that Ukraine has a $23-billion "fast recovery" plan to repair damage to hospitals, schools, transport and energy infrastructure among other things, but "as of now we haven't received a single cent for the implementation of the fast recovery plan."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, facing military production delays and mounting losses, urged his government Tuesday to cut through bureaucracy to crank out enough weapons and supplies to feed the war.
The Institute for the Study of War, in Washington, said that "the slower tempo of Russian air, missile, and drone strikes possibly reflects decreasing missile and drone stockpiles and the strikes' limited effectiveness of accomplishing Russian strategic military goals."
Kyiv also says it needs more war material.
"We need more weaponry, we need more ammunition to win this war," Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told reporters in Berlin.
Other news related to the war:
- A Russian court on Tuesday dismissed U.S. WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner's appeal against a nine-year sentence for possessing and smuggling vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist, was arrested on Feb. 17 at a Moscow airport, a week before Russia sent troops into Ukraine, and her case has inevitably been viewed in the context of the ensuing crisis in U.S.-Russian relations.
- Ukraine's entry for next year's Oscars, a drama about a family living in an occupied village in Eastern Ukraine, has premiered in a packed Kyiv cinema despite fears of power cuts and air sirens. Many uniformed Ukrainian servicemen were among the 400 or so viewers at the showing of Klondike, which tells the story of Ira, a pregnant Ukrainian woman who refuses to flee her village when it is captured by Russian-backed armed separatists in 2014.
- In a sign of how much the war has affected Russian society, three barbershops around Moscow told Reuters that they are struggling to survive due to lack of men — either because they are fighting or have fled the country since Putin announced a partial mobilization.
- On the diplomatic front, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after arriving in Kyiv that "it was important to me in this phase of air attacks with drones, cruise missiles and rockets to send a signal of solidarity to Ukrainians." Later in the day, he took cover in a bomb shelter after an air raid siren alerted a possible attack, according to local media. Meanwhile, new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised Zelenskyy on a call that the U.K.'s support for Ukraine would be steadfast and "as strong as ever under his premiership," a Downing Street spokesperson said.
With files from Reuters and CBC's John Mazerolle