Western countries accused Russia yesterday of plotting to use a threat of a “dirty bomb” laced with nuclear material as a pretext for escalation in Ukraine.
The allegations came as Moscow evacuated civilians from a southern city in anticipation of a major battle.
With Ukrainian forces advancing into Russian-occupied Kherson province, top Russian officials phoned Western counterparts on Sunday and again yesterday to tell them Moscow suspected Kyiv of planning to use a so-called “dirty bomb”.
In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of France, Britain and the United States said they had all rejected the allegations and reaffirmed their support for Ukraine against Russia.
“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,” they said.
“The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation.”
Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu phoned Western counterparts on Sunday.
British chief of defence staff Tony Radakin again rejected Russia’s allegations in a call with Russian military chief of general Staff Valery Gerasimov yesterday, the British defence ministry said in a statement.
Russia’s RIA news agency reported Gerasimov also spoke to the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Mark Milley, yesterday, eight months to the day since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Russia’s defence ministry said the aim of a “dirty bomb” attack by Ukraine would to blame the resulting radioactive contamination on 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,” it said, adding that it had prepared its forces to work in conditions of radioactive contamination.
In an overnight address, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky had said the Russian accusation was a sign Moscow was planning such an attack itself and would blame Ukraine.
“If Russia calls and says that Ukraine is allegedly preparing something, it means one thing: Russia has already prepared all this,” Mr Zelensky said.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the accusation against Moscow was “not a serious conversation”, Interfax news agency reported.
Russia has ordered civilians to evacuate territory it controls on the western bank of the Dnipro River, where Ukrainian forces have been advancing since the start of this month shortly after Moscow claimed to have annexed the area.
A Russian defeat there would be one of Moscow’s biggest setbacks yet.
Kherson’s regional capital is the only big city Russia has captured intact since its February 24 invasion, and its only foothold on the west bank of the Dnipro, which bisects Ukraine. The province controls the gateway to Crimea, the peninsula Russia seized and claimed to annex in 2014.
The Russian-installed authorities in Kherson announced yesterday that men who stay behind would have the option of joining a military self-defence unit. Kyiv accuses Russia of press-ganging men in occupied areas into military formations, a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.
Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s military spy chief, said Russian forces were preparing to defend Kherson city, not retreat.
“They are creating the illusion that all is lost. Yet at the same time they are moving new military units in and preparing to defend the streets of Kherson,” he told the Ukrainska Pravda online media outlet.
The general staff of the Ukrainian armed forces said on Facebook that Russian forces had launched three missile and seven air raids throughout Ukraine in the last 24 hours, damaging infrastructure in heavily contested areas of the Donetsk region in the east and in areas of the Kharkiv region in the northeast freed last month from Russian occupation.
About 10 towns came under attack in the Zaporizhzhia region of central Ukraine, it said, as did eight towns on the southern front – where Ukrainian forces are engaged in a counter-offensive in Kherson.
Since Russia’s forces suffered major battlefield defeats in September, President Vladimir Putin has escalated the war, calling up hundreds of thousands of reservists, announcing the annexation of occupied territory and repeatedly threatening to use nuclear weapons to defend Russian land.