“Dirty Bomb” Is Back. Why Russia Retrieved the Old Story

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The statement of Russian Defence Minister Shoigu, accompanied by a chorus of Russian propaganda resources, once again revived the topic of the “dirty bomb” in public space. It took its place in the traditional repertoire of Kremlin horror stories about biolaboratories, chemical weapons and education on gender.

The story began even before the full-scale Russian invasion and was covered by the Centre for Strategic Communication, journalists, and fact-checkers.

At first, it was not a story about Zelenskyy, but about “radical radicals not controlled by anyone.” And specifically, about the Ukrainian party “National Corps” created by veterans of the first “Azov” (when it was a volunteer formation, not a regiment of the National Guard). 

In December 2021, the propaganda resource Politnavigator posted an obviously fake video with a demonstration of some “device with radioactive filling” (sic), allegedly filmed by the “National Corps.” The video claims that this infernal machine was created for partisan actions and will be used in the event of the advance of Russian troops on the territory of Ukraine. 

On February 4, it was picked up in a slightly “improved” form by a pool of pro-Kremlin Telegram channels (Joker DNR, Samooborona Horlovki, Pravda News, and Russian military correspondents).

The Russian fake was so obviously bad because of:

  • numerous mistakes and Russian words in the subtitles;
  • lack of sound (Russian fakers somehow managed to translate the text of the subtitles, could not do a voice-over);
  • a wrong logo of the “National Corps”;
  • a rather strange protective suit of the alleged “creator” of the dirty bomb: gloves and rolled up sleeves on the shirt.

On February 16, the website Komsomolskaya Pravda published a huge text by propagandist Dmitri Steshin, in which Ukraine was portrayed as a source of nuclear threat to Europe. The case of the “dirty bomb of the National Corps” was one of the key subjects of the article.

Additional impetus to the nuclear hysteria was given by the Munich Security Conference on February 19, at which President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy reprimanded the guarantor countries of the Budapest Memorandum for their chronic reluctance to meet for consultations at the request of Ukraine.

Then, among other things, Zelenskyy said:

“I will initiate consultations within the framework of the Budapest Memorandum. The Minister of Foreign Affairs is tasked with convening them, and if they do not take place again, or if there are no security guarantees for our state as a result of them, Ukraine will have every right to believe that the Budapest Memorandum is not working, and all the package decisions of 1994 have been called into question.”

The Russian media immediately twisted the content of what he said, claiming that Zelenskyy threatened to restore Ukraine’s nuclear status. Russian dictator Putin reproduced the same statement in his speeches in the following days.

After the start of the full-scale invasion, the Russians tried to use the topic of the perceived “nuclear threat” to present their aggression as a necessary “preemptive strike.” 

On March 6, the Russian Interfax, citing anonymous sources, reported that Ukraine, “on the secret orders of Zelenskyy,” was working on the creation of a “dirty bomb,” and therefore the Russians were forced to act in advance. The key role in its development allegedly belonged to scientists of the Kharkiv Physical and Technical Institute (KhPTI).

The storyline was developed by Zvezda, a resource of Russia’s MoD, which described the US and Canada as Ukraine’s “accomplices,” followed by a pool of Telegram channels.

The spread of this story was completely synced up with shelling of KhPTI with its “Neutron Source” installation by Russian artillery. 

By that time, the Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhia NPPs had already been captured by Russian troops.

That is, the Russians covered up their real actions, which can be considered acts of nuclear terrorism, with fakes about the “Ukrainian threat.” 

The next wave of reports about the “nuclear provocation of Ukraine” happened in autumn. That was how Russian propagandists interpreted the statements of the Ukrainian authorities about the threat of the Kremlin’s use of tactical nuclear weapons and Ukraine’s readiness to respond. However, neither President Volodymyr Zelenskyy nor NSDC Secretary Oleksii Danilov made any hints or calls to use nuclear weapons against Russia.  

The peak of this absurdity was the big statement of the “DPR” combatant Yuri Gagarin on Russian television about Ukraine’s intentions to use a previously unknown type of weapon — a “surrogate bomb.” According to the militant, only the full-scale invasion on February 24 stopped this sinister plan.

Of course, these insinuations of the aggressor have no chance to convince the global community. After Shoigu’s last call, the foreign ministers of France, the UK and the United States issued a joint statement in which they clearly said: “Our countries made clear that we all reject Russia’s transparently false allegations that Ukraine is preparing to use a dirty bomb on its own territory. The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation.”

On the other hand, the Russian nuclear horror cannot but cause concern. Raising the stakes every time, one day the Kremlin may simply not be able to resist the temptation to drive humanity into a global catastrophe. 

Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security

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