Russian Misinformation About Ukrainian Radiological Weapons Capabilities and Intentions

March 10,2022
Matthew Goldenberg and William C. Potter[*]

This article is part of a larger Ukraine collection by CNS:
Putin’s War with Ukraine: Voices of CNS Experts on the Russian Invasion

Russian President Vladimir Putin (src: Shutterstock)

The carnage and chaos unleashed by Putin’s unprovoked war with Ukraine is shaking the very foundations of the contemporary international system. It has upended much of what we have long taken for granted regarding international peace and security on the European continent. It also raises many troubling questions about the viability of global arms control and nonproliferation treaties, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

It is not surprising, therefore, that we face many challenges to our preconceived notions, and it is important to be open to a reexamination of what often passes for conventional wisdom.  By the same token, it is now more essential than ever to identify and debunk unfounded and malicious lies and misinformation. Among the most sensational are those being propagated by Russian media about alleged Ukrainian intentions to acquire and employ radiological weapons (RW).[1]

A flurry of these unsubstantiated and intentionally misleading allegations began prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and continue to this date.  Links to an incomplete but indicative collection of these false narratives are provided below along with brief annotations.   Please note that the links to some of the original on-line stories are no longer accessible, but have been included for informational purposes.  CNS has hard copies or PDF files for all items on the list.

In order to counter the Russian disinformation campaign related to radiological weapons, it is important to be aware of past national RW programs, including those developed during the Soviet period.[2]  As detailed in a fall 2020 article in International Security with which at least one of the Russian disinformation agents appears to have been familiar, this history begins almost simultaneously with the publication of a science fiction story by Robert Heinlein (under the pseudonym Anson MacDonald) in May 1941 and a secret U.S government report that same month. The government report identified “the production of violently radioactive materials…carried by airplanes to be scattered as bombs over enemy territory” as one of three possible military applications of atomic fission.[3]

The United States was not alone in its interest in RW, and along with the Soviet Union, developed and conducted tests of radiological weapons in the years between the end of World War II and the mid-1950s. The United Kingdom also initiated a program of research on RW during the same time period, and subsequently Iraq developed and tested primitive radiological weapons during its war with Iran. In addition, Egypt flirted with RW in the early 1960s, seeking to acquire radiological sources from abroad. All of these programs, however, ultimately were abandoned, usually due to a combination of technical obstacles, economic constraints, perceived lack of military effectiveness, health and safety considerations, loss of leadership support, normative concerns, bureaucratic opposition, and a decision to focus on other non-conventional weapons.

While the Soviet Union’s RW program withered away in the mid-1950s, Moscow has shown renewed interest in nuclear weapons that seek to maximize radioactive contamination. The primary example is the nuclear powered, unmanned, underwater vehicle weapon system known variously as “Kanyon,” “Status-6,” and “Poseidon.” It is designed to attack coastal cities and military targets with a nuclear warhead encased in a cobalt shell.[4]  Russian military analysts have offered little insight into the military rationale for the new doomsday weapon, which has little in common with past radiological weapons.

To summarize, no country has ever used RW in war and none is known to have incorporated them into their nation’s military arsenal. Indeed, in another era—the late 1970s—the United States and the Soviet Union jointly proposed a draft treaty to the Committee on Disarmament in Geneva to prohibit the development, production, stockpiling and use of radiological weapons.[5] That treaty was never adopted, but it is an idea that merits reconsideration.

It is conceivable that in the future some countries may decide that RW serve their perceived national interests. Notwithstanding Russian propaganda, however, there is no evidence that Ukraine has ever seriously considered that option.

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Annotated Chronology on Allegations of Ukrainian RW

The following is an annotated chronology on allegations of Ukrainian RW that was circulated in Russian media in the lead-up to the invasion, and the development of those allegations since that time.

  1. The Military Observer Publishes Photos of Ukraine’s Alleged RW program, 02/04/2022

    This appears to be the earliest source for claims that Ukraine was pursuing a dirty bomb in the lead-up to the Russian invasion. In the following weeks, many Russian state sources would cite this post as the source of their claim of Ukrainian dirty bombs and it appears that narrative began here. This is the Telegram channel of the pro-Kremlin outlet The Military Observer, in which they published a screenshot of a Ukrainian video that allegedly shows the Ukrainian National Crops preparing RW. The source and authenticity of the screenshots is unclear. The same day, the Ukrainian Independent Information Agency published this response: They reject the photos as a forgery and note the video appears to be an IED with a dosimeter thrown on top of it, as well noting that the text in the photos containing many grammatical errors that native Ukrainian speakers are unlikely to make.

  2. “‘Dirty bombs’ and a Second Chernobyl: What Blackmail Can Ukraine Use After the Abandoned War.” Komsomolskaya Pravda, 02/15/2022

    Komsomolskaya Pravda ridicules the West’s claims that Russia is going to invade Ukraine. Then the article cites supplies requests that Ukraine had made to NATO. The requests include protective clothing and gloves. From this, the article deduces that Ukraine must be preparing for an imminent “large-scale man-made disaster. No other conclusion can be drawn from reading this list of aids.” This leap in logic is used to suggest that Ukraine is attempting to create a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb.

  3. “Expert: Ukraine will not be able to make a nuclear bomb, but there is another danger.” Radio Sputnik, 02/20/2022

    While the previous dirty bomb claims were in non-state media sources, this article is one of the earliest published in Russian state media that specifically suggests dirty bombs as an alternative to the nuclear weapons narrative. This source also links dirty bombs to “nationalist-inclined politicians,” which is notably different than claims two weeks later when the dirty bomb idea is linked to the Azov Battalion and the United States collaborating with the Ukrainian government.

  4. “Instead of a Nuclear Warhead, Kyiv Might Get a ‘Dirty Bomb’” Rossiya 24, 02/21/2022,

    Rossiya 24 broadcasts a segment on the post-Soviet removal of nuclear weapons from Ukraine and evaluates the technical capability of Ukraine to create NW or RW: “The potential attempt by Kyiv itself to create warheads might actually turn into the creation of a dirty bomb, and even in the Soviet era, Ukraine did not have such a capability.” This reflects an interesting change in the narrative that Russian state media would increasingly push as the invasion began. While President Putin alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons as one of the rationales of invasion, the media narrative quickly changed to suggest that Ukraine desires nuclear weapons but since they do not have the technical ability to create them, Ukraine has decided to pursue RW.

    The source also states that Zelenskyy’s Munich speech was antithetical to the NPT and that the West “either didn’t understand what Zelenskyy said or they are ready to agree to any Ukrainian action, including a direct violation of Ukraine’s obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” There seems to be confusion in this report over the difference between a nuclear weapon and a radiological weapon, and the reporter incorrectly suggests that either one would be a violation of the NPT.

  5. “Ukraine Almost Created a Dirty Bomb.” Sergei Savchuk, RIA Novosti, 02/25/2022

    This is one of the more analytical examinations of possible Ukrainian RW. The author claims that the invasion already managed to stop the creation of dirty bombs in Ukraine. He suggests that such bombs would be impossible to make without western help, and that the invasion has successfully prevented the West from giving Ukraine direct help in separating radiological components for RW. He also examines the potential for Ukrainian delivery systems to handle a theoretical dirty bomb.

  6. “A Dirty Bomb: What is it and How Dangerous is it?” Aleksandr Petrov, Populyarnaya Mekhanika, 02/25/2022

    A historical and scientific look at RW. The actual content of the article is neutral, but the framing is not—the lede frames the article in terms of the fact that “Vladimir Putin hinted that Ukraine was able to make ‘dirty’ bombs.”

  7. “A Dirty Bomb, The Siege of Crimea, a February Anomaly, A No-Fly Zone.” Rossiya 24, 02/25/2022

    This is among the only Russian media sources to use the phrase “radiological weapon.” Most sources fail to clearly distinguish a radiological device from NW. However, note the animation at 4:40, in which the effects of a radiological dispersal device are described accurately, but the animation portrays a device more similar to NW, complete with a stereotypical mushroom cloud. Also of note is that the presenter at the ends says that there is no serious attempt on the part of the Ukrainian government to pursue a dirty bomb, but that the risk is that nationalist groups might attempt to do so. This differs from the narrative two weeks later, when such groups are alleged to be working with the Ukrainian government to procure a dirty bomb.

  8. “Russia is not Engaging in a War with the Ukrainian People—Permanent Representative to the UN.” Interfax, 02/26/2022

    One of the rare mentions of the dirty bomb claims by Russia in an international forum. The lackluster attempt by Russia to push the RW claims in international fora suggests that it is a narrative targeting only a domestic audience. Even in this instance, the dirty bombs are not mentioned as a cause of the war, as they are portrayed often in Russian media, but rather as the reason that Russian forces moved to secure Chernobyl. Here, Ambassador Nebenzya mentions it in his speech after the Security Council vote on the Ukrainian invasion draft resolution.

  9. “Putin has gotten ahead of the West,” Elena Golovan, Argumenty Nedeli, 03/01/2022,

    An interview with Yevgeny Satanovsky, an economist and Middle East expert, in which he had suggested that Ukraine might have sabotaged Chernobyl to create a radiological crisis had Russia not seized control of the zone.

  10. Alleged FSB whistleblower letter, Vladimir Osechkin, 03/04/2022

    This letter is alleged to have come from an FSB insider on the conduct of the war. Of note, he claims that the SVR are “digging up dirt” to try and prove the Ukrainians were attempting to build nuclear weapons and a dirty bomb. This source should be approached with extreme caution and skepticism but we include it here because it fits extremely well with the media strategy that Russia is pursuing, and Christo Grozev of Bellingcat opined that the source is credible:

  11. “The Ministry of Defense Announced an Attempt at a ‘Monstrous Provocation’ by Kyiv Near the Zaporizhzhia NPP.” Aleksandra Vishnyakova, Life, 03/04/2022

    In what quickly became the Russian government’s main excuse for the attack on Zaporizhzhia, the Ministry of Defense claims that the attack was intentionally provoked by nationalists who attacked a Russian patrol, after which the Ukrainians themselves intentionally set the fires at Zaporizhzhia.

  12. “Azarov: Zelenskyy Planned to Use the Emergency at the Nuclear Power Plant for the Creation of a No-Fly Zone.” RT, 03/05/2022

    Mykola Azarov, the former pro-Russian prime minister of Ukraine under the Yanukovych presidency, suggests that Ukraine engineered the attack on Zaporizhzhia in order to give the West an excuse to create a No-Fly Zone. His supposed evidence is that “not a single sane soldier from either the Russian or Ukrainian armies would ever risk carrying out such a provocation on Europe’s largest nuclear station,” and that Zelenskyy’s remarks after the attack seemed to be “an instantaneous reaction,” and must have therefore been prepared in advance. He claims by intervening in Ukraine, Russia has prevented a nuclear war.

  13. “Putin Told Macron about the Ukrainian Radicals’ Provocation in the Area of the Zaporizhzhia NPP.” Victoria Ditrikh and Aleksandr Yunoshev, ru, 03/06/2022

    According to the Russian readout of their conversation, during his March 6th call with President Macron, President Putin claimed that “Ukrainian radicals” were responsible for the attack on Zaporizhzhya. This aspect of the call was not widely reported in Western media, but if true, it appears to be one of the few cases in which Russia has attempted to use the nuclear narrative when engaging with the West and not just a domestic audience.

  14. “Military Expert Koshkin: Ukraine was Trying to Create a ‘Dirty Bomb,’” Federalnoye Agentsvo Novostey, 03/06/2022

    Andrei Koshkin of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics suggests that the West was a few weeks away from invading the Donbass before the Russian invasion, that they were about to supply Ukraine with nuclear weapons, and that Ukraine was 3-4 months away from developing dirty bombs.

  15. “Retrieve it From Under the Sarcophagus,” Oleg Klimov, Federalnoye Agentsvo Novostey, 03/06/2022

    Deputy Anatoly Wasserman of the State Duma in an interview expresses his belief that it would be easy for Ukraine to create a dirty bomb from Chernobyl, and that the technical challenges were minimal.

  16. “The Main Topics of the Hour: 9:30” Radio Sputnik, 03/06/2022,

    Radio Sputnik claims that a representative of a “competent department of the Russian Federation” has told them that Kyiv was working in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on creating a radiological weapon, saying that “the naturally increased radiation background of Chernobyl hid the conduct of such work.”

  17. “A Source Tells Why Ukraine Used the Chernobyl NPP Zone” RIA Novosti, 03/06/2022

    This source also cites the “representative of one of the competent departments of the Russian Federation.” It claims that several research institutions in Ukraine have been working on RW-related projects, including Kyiv National University and Odessa Polytechnic. Their proof is that these projects allegedly focused on “the metallurgical field of nuclear materials and technologies for the production of special alloys.”

  18. “TASS, Interfax, and RIA Novosti Spoke About the Development of Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine. At the Same Time, With the Same Phrasing, and With Reference to a ‘Competent Source.’” Meduza, 03/06/2022

    Independent news outlet Meduza notes the simultaneous publications by several Russia state media companies of the story alleging the development of dirty bombs, and that all of them cite the same source from “one of the competent departments” of the government. Meduza notes, correctly, that all the sources published on March 6 about dirty bombs all use nearly the exact same language and quotes. The TASS article is already noted above, the Interfax website is currently unavailable, and the RIA Novosti article with identical language can be found here:

  19. “Our Soldiers Liquidated the “Nuclear Ukraine Project in Time” Alexei Ivanov, Zavtra, 03/06/2022

    This source goes in-depth into the specifics of the Ukraine nuclear R&D allegations. They claim that Ukraine has been pursuing nuclear weapons since 1994, and they could have secretly acquired centrifugal enrichment and laser isotope separation technology from the United States, as well as plutonium. They further allege to have discovered unspecified evidence at the captured Chernobyl site that Chernobyl was being used by Kyiv to both separate plutonium from radioactive waste products and to create a dirty bomb. The source also discusses Ukrainian missile technology imports and suggests that Ukrainian aerospace company Yuzhmash had partnered with Turkey for “the creation of a mobile complex fitted with a solid-propellant ballistic missile capable of reaching 1500 kilometers.” The article also alleges that Ukraine has developed rockets which are “ideal delivery system[s] for dirty bombs.”

  20. “RF Ministry of Defense: SBU is preparing a provocation with a radioactive contamination in the vicinity of Kharkiv.” TASS, 03/06/2022;

    The Russian government’s newest version of events says that Ukraine’s SBU is collaborating with the Azov Battalion to “mine” a reactor, and blame the ensuing catastrophe on a Russian missile strike. The so-called reactor in question is actually the accelerator-driven subcritical assembly at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology. This, TASS claims, is why NPPs in Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia were taken by Russian soldiers, implying that the Russian war effort is the act of a responsible nuclear superpower attempting to prevent a radiological disaster by a collaboration between the Ukrainian government and the neo-Nazi Azov group. This allegation links together several of the Russian government’s claims over the last few days into a single narrative.

  21. “Cholera and Anthrax: Ukraine Was Preparing Biological Weapons By the Order of the United States,” Aleksandr Grishin, Komsomolskaya Pravda, 03/06/2022; and “Direct Evidence that NATO Was on the Side of Ukraine’s Regime,” Nikita Makerenov and Pavel Khanarin, Komsomolskaya Pravda, 03/06/2022

    This appears to be another claim, first appearing Monday morning in Moscow that Ukraine was also working on BW. Their evidence comes from the Donetsk leader who claims to have obtained a laptop belonging to NATO on war plans in Ukraine. The laptop pictured is well over a decade old, with what appears to be duct tape holding it together—it is extremely dubious evidence. This combined with the accusation of NW and RW pursual makes it seem like propaganda is being churned out to see what sticks.

    Of note, the first article also repeats the line about the competent government source, and asserts that the belief that Ukraine was starting to work on creating a dirty bomb was “probably” why Russian forces were sent to Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia.

  22. “Zelenksyy ‘In Exile.’ American Biolabs. Dirty Bombs of the Kyivan Regime.” Nikolai Starikov, 03/07/2022

    This video by Nikolai Starikov, a popular Russian media personality, at 10:13 conflates NW with RW. This has appeared in both Western and Russian sources, but it is possible this is at least partially intentional in Russian media. The initial claims that Ukraine was preparing a nuclear bomb were easily falsifiable, so conflating that initial reason given on the eve of the invasion with a dirty bomb appears almost as an intentional tactic to muddy the waters. Note that this is very similar to Russian media tactics of the recent past. The Skripal poisoning was derided initially by Russian media as being the result of fentanyl poisoning, and Dmitry Kiselyov of the popular show Vesti Nedeli suggested that the British government poisoned the Skripals and blamed it on Russia. The claims about dirty bombs parallel these types of accusations.

  23. “The IAEA Believes that the Scientific Nuclear Installation in Kharkiv Might Have Been Destroyed.” TASS, 03/07/2022

    Russian state media reproduces Director General Grossi’s comments on Monday about the destruction of the Kharkiv facility, and then adds after those comments the Russian Ministry of Defense’s claim that the SBU and Azov Regiment were planning on destroying the facility and blaming Russia.

  24. “A Source: By All Indications, Ukraine Received Nuclear Materials from the United States.” TASS,  03/07/2022

    On March 7th, Russian media started carrying the allegation that the US was aware that Ukraine was pursuing nuclear weapons and sent them plutonium for the purpose of speeding up R&D on the project. Like the biological weapons claims being pushed, Russia is going farther than before by spuriously accusing the United States of aiding a made-up nuclear program.

  25. “What was the Trigger for Putin to Switch on the ‘Soviet Chekist’ Regime,” Olga Lebedeva, ru, 03/08/2022

    Blogger Igor Dmitriev claims the rapid transition of Russian from a corporatist state to a police state had something to do with a “secret document.” He says, “What happened that turned [Putin] from a company director to a Soviet Chekist again? Everyone is talking about some secret document that changed his relationship to what is going on in Ukraine…it is now clear that in the document that pressed the trigger which activated a completely different regime in Putin—there was data about nuclear weapons.” This version of events is currently circulating in several Russian media outlets, but the secret document that Dmitriev claims everyone is talking about does not appear to exist, and all references to it by Russian media links back to Dmitriev’s own Telegram channel. This account is interesting because it ties the claims that Ukraine is attempting to do an amorphous something with nuclear weapons or dirty bombs together with the reorientation of the Russian state. In this new version, not only did the nuclear threat justify the war, but it also justified Russia’s totalitarian shift. In addition, a few hours later, Dmitriev posted in his channel, “I need to clarify: I don’t know anything about nuclear technologies, I don’t know what was in the report, and I don’t sure that it is real and whether the report has a real basis.” This addendum was not reported anywhere in Russian media, and was only seen by 70,000 viewers, compared to his initial claims which reached on 300,000 on Telegram and countless others in news articles reproducing his claims. His Telegram posts have been aggregated here:

  26. “The Ministry of Defense Has Learned of Nationalist Plans to Arrange a Provocation with Chemical Weapons.” RIA Novosti, 03/09/2022,

    After accusing Ukraine of building nuclear, radiological, and biological weapons, Russia rounds out the CBRN accusations by claiming Ukraine is stockpiling 80 tons of ammonia near Kharkiv, which the source indicates will then be used to accuse Russia of chemical warfare. Note that ammonia is not a controlled substance on the Annex on Chemicals in the Chemical Weapon Convention and has extremely limited uses as a chemical warfare agent, though it can be used as a precursor in the production of hydrogen cyanide.

    This accusation is written extremely similarly to the dirty bomb claims, and the specific language the source uses, “preparing a provocation in order to accuse Russia,” is nearly an identical to that used to describe RW/BW.

  27. “The United States Admits that it Gave Ukraine Instructions on Biological Program. And Perhaps, They Were Developing a ‘Dirty Bomb?’” Ivan Kasimov, Vecherniy Omsk, 03/09/2022

    Russia claims that the US admitted to helping Ukraine develop a biological weapons program. Their alleged evidence is actually the US’s denial of this claim, in which Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland asserts the labs in question were Ukrainian laboratories that collaborated with the US for biological research under the Biological Threat Reduction Program. The article then leadingly asks if this admission means that soon the US will admit the existence of research projects to create RW in Ukraine. Though this article briefly explains the difference between a nuclear and a radiological weapon, it refers to a radiological dispersal device as a “dirty nuclear bomb.”

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Matthew Goldenberg is a graduate research assistant at CNS and a student at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

Dr. Potter is Director, CNS and Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar Professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey


[1] Russian propagandists also are making even more outlandish claims about Ukrainian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.  For a short critique of this misinformation, almost certainly timed to justify the Russian invasion, see Mariana Budjeryn and Matthew Bunn, “Ukraine building a nuclear bomb? Dangerous nonsense,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (March 9, 2022) at: Ukraine building a nuclear bomb? Dangerous nonsense

[2] The most detailed analysis of US and Soviet RW programs is Samuel Meyer, Sarah Bidgood, and William C. Potter, “Death Dust: The Little-Known Story of U.S. and Soviet Pursuit of Radiological Weapons,” International Security (Fall 2020), pp.51-94.  An excellent account of the UK’s RW program is provided by William King, “A weapon too far: The British radiological warfare experience, 1940-1955,” War in History (2021), pp. 1-23.

[3] See Anson MacDonald, “Solution Unsatisfactory,” Astounding Science Fiction, Vol 27-p0o9i67, No. 3 (May 1941), pp. 56-86) and Report of the Uranium Committee. Arthur H. Compton, National Academy of Sciences Committee on Atomic Fission, to Frank Jewett, President, National Academy of Sciences, May 17, 1941, p. 2, html.

[4] For a more detailed description of “Poseidon,” see Hanna Notte, Sarah Bidgood, Nikolai Sokov, and William Potter, “Russia’s novel weapons systems: military innovation in the post-Soviet period,” Nonproliferation Review, published online on August 19, 2021, available at: https://dol.oprg/10.1080/10736700.2021.

[5] See “Death Dust,” pp. 93-94.

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