Kremlin media used claims of Ukraine creating a dirty bomb to justify invasion
The narrative was amplified by various Russian outlets and circulated on multiple social media platforms prior to Putin invading Ukraine.
BANNER: Vladimir Putin justifies his invasion of Ukraine. (Source: RT/Reuters)
Following the seizure of Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant by Russian troops, Kremlin-owned outlet RIA accused Ukraine of “almost creating a dirty nuclear bomb.” The unsupported claim cites a February 22 interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which he stated that even the appearance of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine is a strategic threat for Russia. The same narrative was spread just prior to the Russian invasion. The accusation, repeatedly presented without any evidence, is being circulated on multiple platforms, including YouTube, Facebook, VK, and various websites.
On February 26, Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated that Kremlin propaganda accuses Ukraine of preparing to drop a dirty bomb on Russian territory. Calling it “a sick fake,” Kuleba denied Ukraine having nuclear weapons and plans to acquire them.
The DFRLab has previously reported about Russian outlets increasing claims that Ukraine will start a war prior to Russia’s invasion, with an 50 percent increase of stories mentioning the narrative in January 2022 over the previous month. The outlets claimed that Ukraine might stage a chemical attack in Donbas and blame it on the Russia-backed separatist authorities.
Unsupported, paradoxical “dirty nuclear bomb” claims
Following the seizure of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Kremlin media has been trying to justify Russia’s invasion in Ukraine with the unsupported claim of Ukraine’s dirty nuclear bomb. The Kremlin-owned RIA article stated that “Kyiv is literally one step away” from creating tactical nuclear weapon, citing this as reason to invade the country. The article goes on to note the threat of “Russophobic authorities” in Kyiv acquiring a dirty bomb, claiming that one of the most dangerous uses of this technology involves spraying radioactive dust from an aircraft, leading to “guaranteed death.”
The argument made by both Putin and RIA are paradoxical, because a “dirty bomb” is not the same thing as a nuclear weapon. Dirty bombs only require radioactive material to be placed alongside radioactive material, which would spread the material across the surrounding area, but not result in a nuclear detonation or anything approximate to one. In theory at least, almost anyone could assemble such a device, as no expertise in nuclear weapons is required. So even in the unlikely scenario that Ukraine were to assemble a dirty bomb, it would be nowhere near “one step away” from creating a tactical nuclear weapon, given the enormous technological complexity and expense in creating one.
RIA’s article was amplified by pro-Kremlin fringe online outlets. Vesti.ru also published a report that referred to Putin’s speech and explained the threat posed by Kyiv possessing a dirty bomb. Other Russian online outlets attempted to justify Russia’s invasion by publishing the “explanatory” interview with pro-Kremlin military expert Igor Nikulin, who claimed that the three main threats coming out of Ukraine are nuclear, terrorist and biological. Nikulin has a long history of making fanciful claims; in 2020, he was a leading proponent of the conspiracy theory that the United States created COVID-19 as a bioweapon.
The same narrative blaming Kyiv for creating a dirty bomb was spread by Kremlin media and their YouTube channels several days ahead the February 24 Russian invasion, particularly on February 20, 21, and 22. One of the most viewed videos spreading the narrative was posted by Solovyev LIVE — the channel owned by the Kremlin commentator Vladimir Solovyev. The video garnered approximately 850,000 views and 37,000 likes.
Soloviyev LIVE’s YouTube video was amplified in various Facebook groups. While some openly stated they were supportive of the Kremlin, others indicated they were news and political groups. The engagement with the videos in the groups was close to zero.
On Russian social media VK, various accounts identifying themselves as news sources from Russia spread the same narrative that a “dirty bomb threat” is coming out of Ukraine. They cited the vesti.ru article, which is currently inaccessible, and used the same imagery for their posts. The posts were shared within several minutes of each other.
While Russia continues to wage war in Ukraine on its fourth day of full-scale military aggression, Kremlin media and officials attempt create justifications for it. As previously reported by the DFRLab, Kremlin media also accused Ukraine of preparing chemical and biological attacks in the lead-up to the Russian invasion. Taken together, these narratives were produced and amplified as pretext to invade Ukraine while simultaneously blaming Ukraine for the conflict.
Cite this case study:
Eto Buziashvili, “Kremlin media used claims of Ukraine creating a dirty bomb to justify invasion,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), February 27, 2022, https://medium.com/dfrlab/kremlin-media-used-claims-of-ukraine-creating-a-dirty-bomb-to-justify-invasion-3c8bd6b45884.