WASHINGTON (AP) – Russia has threatened to escalate attacks in Ukraine after the British government announced it would supply Ukraine with a type of munition that Moscow falsely claims has nuclear components.
The British Ministry of Defense confirmed on Monday that it will supply armor-piercing bullets containing depleted uranium to Ukraine.
Such rounds were developed by the US during the Cold War to destroy Soviet tanks, including the same T-72 tanks that Ukraine now faces in its bid to break the stalemate in the east.
Depleted uranium is a by-product of the uranium enrichment process required to create nuclear weapons. The bullets retain some radioactive properties but cannot generate a nuclear reaction like a nuclear weapon, said RAND nuclear expert and policy researcher Edward Geist.
That didn’t stop the Russians from loudly warning that the bullets opened the door to further escalation. They have suggested in the past that the war could escalate to the use of nuclear weapons.
Both the British ministry and the White House rejected the Russian accusations. But munitions carry risks even if they are not nuclear weapons.
A Look at Depleted Uranium Ammunition:
WHAT IS POOR-MINDED URANUS?
Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the process of creating the rarer, enriched uranium used in nuclear fuel and weapons. Although far less powerful than enriched uranium and incapable of producing a nuclear reaction, depleted uranium is extremely dense – denser than lead – making it very attractive as a projectile.
“It’s so dense and has so much momentum that it just keeps going through the armor — and heats it up so much that it catches fire,” Geist said.
When fired, depleted uranium munitions become “essentially an exotic metal dart fired at an extremely high velocity,” said RAND senior defense analyst Scott Boston.
In the 1970s, the US military began making armor-piercing rounds with depleted uranium and has since added it to composite tank armor to strengthen it. It also added depleted uranium to the munitions fired by the Air Force’s A-10 close support attack aircraft, known as the tank killer. The U.S. military continues to develop depleted uranium ammunition, specifically the M829A4 armor-piercing round for the M1A2 Abrams main battle tank, Boston said.
WHAT DID RUSSIA SAY?
President Vladimir Putin warned on Tuesday that Moscow “will respond accordingly, given that the collective West is beginning to use weapons with a ‘nuclear component’.”
The British have “lost their bearings”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, warning that the munitions were “a step towards accelerating escalation”.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the announcement was “another step and there aren’t that many left.”
The White House denounced the Russian claims as disinformation.
“Make no mistake, this is another straw man through which the Russians drive a stake,” said US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
Russia also has depleted uranium munitions and simply does not want Ukraine to have them either, said the White House official, who was not authorized to comment on the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. General Pat Ryder said Monday that, to his knowledge, the US is not sending depleted uranium munitions from its own arsenal to Ukraine.
IT’S NOT A BOMB, BUT IT’S STILL A RISK
While depleted uranium munitions are not considered nuclear weapons, their emission of low-level radiation has prompted the UN nuclear watchdog to urge caution in handling and warn of the possible dangers of exposure.
Handling of such munitions “should be kept to a minimum and protective clothing (gloves) should be worn,” the International Atomic Energy Agency warns, adding that “a public information campaign may therefore be needed to ensure that people avoid handling missiles.”
“This should be part of any risk assessment and such precautions should depend on the scale and number of munitions used in an area.”
The IAEA notes that depleted uranium is mostly a toxic chemical, as opposed to a radiation hazard. Particles in aerosols can be inhaled or swallowed, and while most would be excreted again, some can enter the bloodstream and cause kidney damage.
“High concentrations in the kidneys can cause damage and, in extreme cases, kidney failure,” the IAEA says.
The low radioactivity of the depleted uranium bullet “is a bug, not a feature” of the ammunition, Geist said, and if the U.S. military could find another material of the same density but without the radioactivity, it would likely use it instead.
Depleted uranium ammunition was used in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraqi T-72 tanks and again in the invasion of the country in 2003, as well as in Serbia and Kosovo. American military veterans of those conflicts have questioned whether their use led to the illnesses they now face.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, said that stocks of bullets containing depleted uranium could lead to “a tragedy on a global scale that will primarily affect European countries.”
Volodin said that the use of such American ammunition in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq led to “radioactive contamination and a sudden increase in oncological diseases.”
Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani in Washington, Frank Jordans in Berlin and Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus contributed to this report.
Follow AP coverage of Russia’s war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.