Ukraine: Russia’s Dirty Bomb Warning

Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has warned that Ukraine will use a “dirty bomb.” That’s a conventional explosive that spews radioactive contamination. And Russia has insisted on a UN session to address this alleged threat.

Ukraine’s allies have denounced it as a preposterous lie. Yet it is very scary — because it warns of dirty bomb use by Russia. Laying the groundwork for doing it while claiming it was the other side. A standard Russian ploy called “mirroring.” (Like Trump trying to steal the election while screaming that Democrats were stealing it.)

Unleashing a dirty bomb might seem a crazy thing to do. As with Russia’s invasion in the first place. A dirty bomb’s military impacts would actually be minimal, possibly even negative for Russia, limiting its own troops’ scope of operations. We’re told they’re already being outfitted with anti-radiation gear (which if true would raise the likelihood of a dirty bomb attack). So for dubious military advantage, Russia would be paying hugely in international opprobrium. And couldn’t seriously expect anyone to believe Ukraine responsible.

However, none of that is the point. To the contrary, what is the point is the action’s craziness itself. Blaming Ukraine is intended to be disbelieved, to show us what a badass we’re up against. Like in a game of chicken, where you try to make the other guy blink, by convincing him you’re crazier than he is.

As if we still needed convincing. But it won’t work. From the outset Putin calculated that a blitzkrieg would cause Ukrainians to just fecklessly fold. Instead it stiffened their resolve — newly instilling a national sense of purpose far beyond what existed before.

It was also, from the outset, a war of sadism. To inflict so much pain that Ukrainians couldn’t stand it. That, rather than any actual military objectives, guided so much of Russia’s actions; aimed less at Ukraine’s army than at the civilian population. Especially with a conventional military victory for Russia looking increasingly impossible. Hence now its effort to destroy Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, to give its people a freezing winter. Here too Putin’s cynical view of human nature misled him; with no idea how strong and resilient people can actually be, when put to the severest test.

Those who think he’s bluffing about using nukes should ponder the “crazier than you” model. He’s pointedly said that the nuclear weapons taboo was already broken, by America, in 1945. Though more correctly it was 1945 that cemented the never-again taboo, that held ever after. Until now.

A “crazier than” strategy’s logic can require you to actually do the crazy thing. A dirty bomb may not technically be a “nuclear weapon;” but that in fact heightens the danger of Russia using it. Because besides denying responsibility, Putin can also deny it breaks the taboo. Even while it certainly, at least, would be the most concrete step toward breaking it since 1945. The hymen would no longer be intact.

Meantime — Republicans have signaled that their Congressional control after this election will mean blocking further U.S. support for Ukraine. I’d call that a “dirty bomb” too.

2 Responses to “Ukraine: Russia’s Dirty Bomb Warning”

  1. Lee Says:

    I am thinking that the dirty bomb message is mostly for the Russian citizenry, and is intended to keep them fearful, committed, and loyal. Putin might not have to actually use the weapon in order to get these desired results — which would be very good for citizens of all nations! — but unfortunately he might believe otherwise.

  2. The “dirty bomb” and a typology of lies in Russian propaganda – Text Grinder Says:

    […] something to be studied by psychologists in the future. But they are not alone. As I read in this excellent post by The Rational Optimist, while I was writing up this text, Donald Trump has done this kind of […]

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