Kyiv: Western countries accused Russia on Monday of plotting to use a threat of a bomb laced with nuclear material as a pretext for escalation in Ukraine, as Moscow evacuated civilians from a southern city in anticipation of a major battle.
With Ukrainian forces advancing into Russian-occupied Kherson province, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu phoned Western counterparts on Sunday 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.” In an overnight address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy 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,” Zelenskiy said.
“So when today the Russian Minister of Defense organises a phone carousel and calls foreign ministers with stories about the so-called ‘dirty’ nuclear bomb, everyone understands everything well. Understands who is the source of everything dirty that can be imagined in this war.”
Asked about the fact that others did not seem to believe Russian’s accusations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a briefing on Monday: “Their disbelief doesn’t mean there’s no threat ... The threat is evident.”
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.
Kherson’s regional capital is the only big city Russia has captured intact since the attack in February, 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 on Monday that men who stay behind would have the option of joining a military self-defence unit.
Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s military spy chief, said Russian forces were preparing to defend Kherson city, not retreat from it, and reported evacuations were part of a Russian information campaign. While Russia is moving financial structures, equipment, vulnerable residents and wounded people from Kherson, he said, it is also reinforcing defences.
“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 Interfax Ukraine news agency.
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.