The Kremlin and the ‘Dirty Bomb’

Happy Wednesday! And depending on where you come down in the age-old security vs. privacy debates, happy 21st anniversary to the USA Patriot Act.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • A spokesman for South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Tuesday that peace talks between the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan authorities—brokered by the African Union—kicked off yesterday in South Africa and will run through Sunday. The negotiations come days after the Ethiopian army (and its Eritrean allies) made significant territorial gains in northern Tigray, putting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in a weaker bargaining position as leaders across the African continent push for an end to the conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions more.
  • The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced yesterday that security officials conducted a raid on a “hideout apartment” in the Palestinian city of Nablus on Tuesday that was allegedly being used as a headquarters and explosives manufacturing site by the fledgling Lion’s Den terrorist group, which the IDF holds responsible for the recent killing of an Israeli staff sergeant. Palestinian officials said the IDF killed at least six people and injured about 20 more, accusing Israel of “war crimes.” Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, meanwhile, considered the raid a success for severely damaging the “terrorist laboratory” of Lion’s Den. “We will not relent even for a moment,” he added.
  • U.S. Africa Command announced Tuesday that U.S. forces—in coordination with the Somalian government—conducted an airstrike near the Somali city of Bulobarde on Sunday, killing two members of the al-Shabaab terrorist group. The U.S. claims no civilians were injured or killed in the strike.
  • The Treasury Department imposed additional sanctions on Nicaragua’s government on Monday after President Joe Biden signed an executive order expanding the agency’s authority to “hold the Ortega-Murillo regime accountable for its continued attacks on Nicaraguans’ freedom of expression and assembly.” The additional sanctions target the Central American country’s gold mining industry and hundreds of President Daniel Ortega’s top supporters. 
  • A Russian court on Tuesday rejected WNBA star Brittney Griner’s appeal of her nine-year prison sentence for drug possession, but said it would recalculate the time remaining on her sentence by counting each day she’s spent in pre-trial detention as 1.5 days in prison. Griner will reportedly be moved from a Moscow-area prison to a penal colony elsewhere in Russia, and her best chance of returning to the United States remains a prisoner swap. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan reiterated in a statement released Tuesday that the United States believes both Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan are wrongfully detained, claiming the Biden administration has “continued to engage with Russia through every available channel and make every effort to bring [them] home.”
  • Rep. Pramila Jayapal—chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC)—formally withdrew a letter on Tuesday the CPC had sent President Joe Biden just one day earlier urging his administration to “make vigorous diplomatic efforts in support of a negotiated settlement and ceasefire, engage in direct talks with Russia, explore prospects for a new European security arrangement acceptable to all parties that will allow for a sovereign and independent Ukraine, and, in coordination with our Ukrainian partners, seek a rapid end to the conflict and reiterate this goal as America’s chief priority.” Jayapal said the letter was drafted several months ago and claimed it was “released by staff” without vetting, but Politico, citing a “source familiar,” reported Tuesday that Jayapal personally approved the letter’s release this week.
  • The yield on gilts (bonds issued by the British government) fell to levels not seen in weeks on Tuesday after Rishi Sunak was formally appointed British prime minister and pledged to prioritize economic stability and avoid saddling future generations with debt “we were too weak to pay ourselves.” Sunak expressed admiration for the boldness of his predecessor, Liz Truss, but said some “mistakes were made” and named a number of experienced Conservative policymakers to his Cabinet.
  • Nearly every corporate entity associated with Kanye West (now known as “Ye”) has cut ties with the outspoken rapper and fashion designer in recent days after multiple anti-Semitic outbursts on social media and in interviews. West’s net worth has reportedly plummeted with Adidas, Balenciaga, Creative Arts Agency, Gap, JPMorgan Chase, MRC Entertainment, Def Jam Recordings, and others severing ties with the rapper. He recently agreed to buy Parler—a right-wing social media platform—to “make sure we have the right to freely express ourselves.”
  • Former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter—who served in the role in the Obama administration from 2015 to 2017—died suddenly on Monday after suffering a heart attack, according to his family. He was 68 years old.

What’s Up With Russia’s ‘Dirty Bomb’ Claims?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images.)

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu hit the phones this weekend, calling his counterparts in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Turkey to warn that Ukraine is preparing to detonate a dirty bomb. But on the off chance that Shoigu actually hoped the messaging campaign would persuade his peers, he was disappointed: Most Western governments interpreted his words instead as a warning that Russia is preparing to detonate a dirty bomb.

“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 American, British, and French foreign ministers said in a rare joint statement. “The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation. We further reject any pretext for escalation by Russia.”

Undeterred, Russia’s defense ministry doubled down on its claims Monday, posting a video of Lt. Gen. Igor Kirillov—head of the Russian military’s radiation, chemical, and biological weapons defense forces—claiming that Kyiv plans to launch a dirty bomb or low-power nuclear warhead on its own land, then blame the attack on Russia. Without providing evidence, Dimitry Polyanskiy—Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations—said on Tuesday the Kremlin had intelligence suggesting two Ukrainian facilities might be working on building a dirty bomb. “We will regard the use of the ‘dirty bomb’ by the [Kyiv] regime as an act of nuclear terrorism,” Vasily Nebenzya, another Russian representative to the United Nations, wrote in a letter to intergovernmental organization.

Dirty bombs have never been detonated outside a test setting, but analysts generally associate them with terrorists rather than nation-states because—much like chemical weapons—their capacity to instill fear outweighs their ability to change the dynamics on a battlefield. Unlike nuclear weapons—which get their explosive power from nuclear fission and can level cities—dirty bombs would be made with a conventional explosive like dynamite bundled with radioactive material. The result: a blast that’s weaker and with less radioactive fallout than a nuclear weapon. 

“[An] explosive device is one of the most inefficient ways of dispersing radioactive material,” Pavel Podvig, director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project, told The Dispatch. “The area that could be contaminated this way could be on the order of—my guess is tens of meters, hundreds of meters max.” Even those inside that radius would be unlikely to sicken immediately, Podvig said, instead risking illness through exposure over time.

Ukraine does have radioactive material within its borders that could conceivably be fashioned into a dirty bomb, but the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog—regularly probes Ukrainian nuclear facilities and cast doubt on Russia’s claims. “The IAEA inspected one of these locations one month ago and all our findings were consistent with Ukraine’s safeguards declarations,” Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a statement. “No undeclared nuclear activities or material were found there.” At Kyiv’s request, the IAEA said Monday it will send inspectors to the two sites for more checks.

Western defense officials have spent the past few days backing up Ukraine’s pleas of innocence—while warning that Russia’s claims may be cover for a strike of its own. “We know it’s not true,” said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. “In the past, the Russians have, on occasion, blamed others for things that they were planning to do.”

Russian officials and propagandists have been floating claims of Ukrainian false flag attacks of various types for months now, so this latest batch doesn’t necessarily mean a Russian attack is imminent. But with Ukrainian forces gaining territory—and momentum—the pace of the accusations, from an increasingly desperate Kremlin, is worrisome. 

Citing unauthorized construction by Russian forces at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Energoatom—the Ukrainian state nuclear power operator—suggested Tuesday that Russia is preparing an attack with radioactive material from the plant. Meanwhile, an anonymous U.S. official warned of unspecified but “new, troubling developments involving Russia’s nuclear arsenal,” while another said in a Pentagon briefing that “we still have seen nothing to indicate that the Russians have made a decision to employ nuclear weapons” or other unconventional attacks.

For now, U.S. officials are focused on deterring any such strike, keeping specific retaliatory plans in the event of a dirty bomb under wraps. “There would be consequences for Russia, whether it uses a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Monday.

“Let me just say Russia would be making [an] incredibly serious mistake if it were to use a tactical nuclear weapon,” President Joe Biden said Tuesday. “I’m not guaranteeing that it’s a false flag operation yet. We don’t know. It would be a serious, serious mistake.”

Some Website Updates

Dispatch members, some good news. Many of the improvements to commenting you asked for are now a reality. 

If you scroll down to the comment section this morning, you’ll be greeted by a number of new features, including the ability to edit and delete comments, collapse threads, and sort posts chronologically or by popularity. We know these are functionalities many of you have been asking for, and we’re excited to roll them out. Here’s how they work:

If you have any questions about how to make use of these updates—or have additional thoughts on how we can improve the member experience—please don’t hesitate to drop us a line here.

Worth Your Time

  • Eric Edelman—former diplomat and Defense Department official—eulogized the late Ashton Carter on Tuesday in a piece for The Bulwark. “Ash was the modern incarnation of the ‘defense intellectual’—someone who combined a deep understanding of the technical side of national defense with an historian’s sensibility about the nature of the national security challenges that the United States faces,” Edelman writes. “He was often, if not always, the smartest person in the room and was noted for not tolerating fools gladly. He was unafraid of going against the grain of his peers, his party, or accepted conventional wisdom—endorsing, for example, the proposed low-yield W-76 warhead on submarine launched ballistic missiles and the nuclear submarine launched cruise missile proposed by the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. He valued America’s allies but did not fetishize our alliances. When he was Secretary of Defense, he worried about wayward allies like Turkey and how to deal with them. His tough-minded approach to national defense has, sadly, been vindicated by the challenges the U.S now faces from Russia and China.”
  • Former Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech at the Heritage Foundation last week, and Matthew Continetti thinks it’s worth your time—not just for its content, but for its framing. “The war [in Ukraine] has crystallized the divide on the American Right,” Continetti writes in National Review. “Reagan conservatives see Volodymyr Zelensky as a hero who is asserting his nation’s sovereignty and freedom against a bloodthirsty despot. Many—not all—Trump populists see the Ukrainian president as a bullying stand-in for a corrupt and decadent network of globalist elites. Pence rejects this view. ‘I know that there is a rising chorus in our party, including some new voices in our movement, who would have us disengage with the wider world and abandon the traditional values at the heart of our movement,’ Pence said. ‘But appeasement has never worked—ever—in history. And now more than ever, we need a conservative movement committed to America’s role as leader of the free world and as a vanguard of American values.’ Where the Right comes down on Ukraine will shape its character in both the foreign and domestic spheres.” Succumbing to the whims of a capricious tyrant will “erode the moral foundations of a movement whose core values are freedom and dignity for all,” Continetti continues. “That is why Pence’s speech matters.”

Presented Without Comment: Part I

Presented Without Comment: Part II

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In Tuesday’s Boiling Frogs (🔒), Nick outlines three clashes that will define American politics in 2023: Kevin McCarthy v. Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump v. Ron DeSantis, and Joe Biden v. Everyone. “The truly interesting fights in 2023 will be those in which leaders of rival factions within the parties collide,” he writes. 
  • For more on the House Progressives’ Ukraine letter debacle, be sure to check out yesterday’s Uphill. “Backlash to the letter among Democrats illustrates how much of the party still backs a strong Ukraine response,” Haley notes. “And even as GOP leaders in the House haven’t been particularly enthusiastic about new aid packages … Republican leaders on key committees and in the Senate are voicing staunch support for staying the course.”
  • In this week’s Sweep (🔒), Sarah ticks through the questions she’ll be thinking about on election night, from the effect of abortion on the midterms, to what a GOP governing agenda looks like, to the accuracy of polling this time around. Plus: Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney’s struggles in New York, the early voting surge in states across the south, and why your vote counts!
  • Is Russia preparing to unleash a dirty bomb in Ukraine? What happened at last week’s Chinese Communist Party Congress in Beijing? What should we make of John Fetterman’s debate performance? And is Kari Lake the most natural MAGA heir apparent? David, Declan, Andrew, and Esther tackled all that—plus Esther’s gritty origin story—on last night’s edition of Dispatch Live (🔒). Dispatch members who missed the conversation can catch a rerun—either video or audio-only—by clicking here.
  • David takes the reins on today’s episode of The Remnant, talking with GQ correspondent and New York Times Magazine contributor Robert Draper about his new book, Weapons of Mass Delusion. What are the biggest reasons for the Republican Party’s shift over the past decade? And what might a GOP House majority look like after the midterms?
  • On the site today, Andrew reports from Arizona on why the Senate race there seems to be tightening down the stretch, and Ryan Bourne reviews Samuel Gregg’s new book The Next American Economy.

Let Us Know

What punitive measures do you expect the U.S. and its allies would implement if Russia were to deploy a dirty bomb?

Comments (422)
Join The Dispatch to participate in the comments.
Load More