Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that Moscow will be “forced to react” if the United Kingdom provides Ukraine with armour-piercing tank ammunition that contains depleted uranium. Putin was reacting on Tuesday to news that the UK’s minister of state for defence, Annabel Goldie, had confirmed that ammunition containing depleted uranium was part of a military aid package being sent to Ukraine along with Challenger 2 battle tanks. The ammunition was described as “highly effective in defeating modern tanks and armoured vehicles”. However, the United Nations Environment Programme has described such ammunition as “chemically and radiologically toxic heavy metal”. Depleted uranium is a by-product of the nuclear enriching process used to make nuclear fuel or nuclear weapons. Its heaviness lends itself for use in armour-piercing rounds as it helps them easily penetrate steel.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence dismissed Putin’s warning on Tuesday, saying the armour-piercing shells had been standard equipment for decades and were “nothing to do with nuclear weapons or capabilities”. The ministry accused Russia of deliberate disinformation for describing the ammunition as “weapons with a nuclear component”. The Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank, said on Wednesday that Putin had portrayed the ammunition as “escalatory in order to deter Western security assistance despite the shells not containing any fissile or radiological material”.
Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the UK’s decision left fewer steps before a potential “nuclear collision” between Russia and the West. “Another step has been taken, and there are fewer and fewer left,” he told reporters in remarks cited by Russian news agencies. Russian politicians and commentators have made a series of combative remarks since the invasion of Ukraine last year, suggesting Moscow would – if necessary – be prepared to deploy its vast nuclear arsenal.
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), an anti-nuclear organisation, condemned the UK decision to send the ammunition, calling it an “additional environmental and health disaster for those living through the conflict” as toxic or radioactive dust can be released on impact. “CND has repeatedly called for the UK government to place an immediate moratorium on the use of depleted uranium weapons and to fund long-term studies into their health and environmental impacts,” CND’s general secretary, Kate Hudson, said, according to Agence France-Presse.
Earlier, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova called the plan the “Yugoslavia scenario”, saying the ammunition caused cancer and infected the environment. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the plan showed that the UK “have lost the bearings”. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commander of the UK’s Royal Tank Regiment, said it was “reckless” of Putin “to try and suggest Britain is sending nuclear material” to Ukraine. He said depleted uranium is a common component of tank rounds, possibly even used by Russia. “Putin insinuating that they are some sort of nuclear weapon is bonkers,” de Bretton-Gordon told The Associated Press. “Depleted uranium is completely inert. There is no way that you could create a nuclear reaction or a nuclear explosion with depleted uranium.”
In a joint statement issued at the end of their meeting in Moscow on Tuesday, Putin and China’s leader Xi Jinping cautioned against any steps that might push the Ukraine conflict into an “uncontrollable phase”, adding pointedly that there could be no winners in a nuclear war.