Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to exploit a British statement that it would supply Ukraine with tank shells made with depleted uranium, arguing that the delivery of the armour-piercing weapons would prompt a Russian response, The Guardian reports.
The Russian leader’s comments, made during the visit to Moscow by his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, came in response to a parliamentary answer given by a junior British defence minister in the House of Lords on Monday.
Annabel Goldie said that the UK would supply “armour piercing rounds which contain depleted uranium” to Ukraine with its gift of 14 Challenger 2 tanks because they are deemed “highly effective in defeating modern tanks and armoured vehicles”.
The comments began to circulate on Russian social media channels on Tuesday, and the Russian leader chose to refer to them after a meeting with Xi. “If all this happens, Russian will have to respond accordingly, given that the west collectively is already beginning to use weapons with a nuclear component,” he said.
Putin did not elaborate, although the Russian leader frequently makes nuclear-related threats, largely in an effort to persuade western countries to limit their interventions in the war in Ukraine, which was started by Moscow’s invasion last year.
Meanwhile, Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, said there were now fewer and fewer steps left before a potential “nuclear collision” between Russia and the west. Moscow also has its own Svinets-2 depleted uranium tank shells in its stockpile.
Britain responded by accusing Russia of “deliberately trying to disinform”. Depleted uranium “has nothing to do with nuclear weapons and capabilities,” the UK Ministry of Defence said, and said it was “a standard component” used by militaries including Russia itself. “Russia knows this,” the spokesperson added.
Depleted uranium is a by-product of the enrichment process that makes nuclear fuel and weapons, and so is less radioactive than the naturally occurring metal, although concerns remain about its toxicity. The waste product is used to make penetrating tank shells because it is 70% more dense than lead.
Similar munitions were used by the UK and the US in the Iraq and Gulf wars in 1991 and 2003, and a recent review of studies in BMJ Global Health highlighted “possible associations” of long-term health problems among Iraqis linked to depleted uranium use on the battlefield.