Picture: Tobias Schwarz/REUTERS/files/taken January 21, 2003 – A convoy of Challenger Two tanks at a British Army training day. A junior British defence minister Annabel Goldie in the House of Lords on March 20 acknowledged that the UK would supply “armour piercing rounds which contain depleted uranium” to Ukraine with its gift of a squadron of Challenger 2 tanks because they are deemed “highly effective in defeating modern tanks and armoured vehicles’’, the writer says.
By Imran Khalid
“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,” was the blunt reaction of Russian President Vladimir Putin to a statement given by a junior British defence minister Annabel Goldie in the House of Lords on March 20, where she acknowledged that the UK would supply “armour piercing rounds which contain depleted uranium” to Ukraine with its gift of a squadron of Challenger Two tanks because they are deemed “highly effective in defeating modern tanks and armoured vehicles’’.
Although Putin did not elaborate how the Russians will respond to the supplies of the controversial anti-tank shells to Ukraine, Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, was little more specific and he warned that there were now fewer and fewer steps left before a potential “nuclear collision” between Russia and the west. So, it shows that Moscow is taking these shells very seriously and may resort to some untoward steps if the UK goes ahead with its supplies to Ukraine.
Not surprisingly, the UK Ministry of London has refuted the Russian claim about “nuclear component” and accused Moscow of intentionally spreading disinformation. They also insist that depleted uranium is a regular component of the armour-piercing shells and equipment for decades and being used by various militaries, including Russia, and it has no connection with nuclear weapons or capabilities.
Nonetheless, the UK has involuntarily ignited a new controversy. Yes, this is true that depleted uranium has been part of the armour-piercing shells for a long time, but it never became a hot topic or controversy because these shells were used in the helpless and weak countries like Iraq and Yugoslavia which could not register their protest. However, this time the opponent is Russia, who is well aware of the potential hazards of these weapons and has the capacity to challenge the West.
We are witnessing a fierce controversy – probably at the right time for some wrong reasons. There are two aspects to the supplies of anti tank shells laced with the depleted uranium to Kyiv: ethical (in terms of potential health hazards) and strategic (pertaining to its impact on the momentum of the on-going conflict). Depleted uranium is a residual by-product produced during the enrichment process for nuclear fuel and weapons. Its enormous density makes it an excellent material for ammunition that can penetrate through the thick armour of tanks, potentially leading to ignition of those inside. Despite being less radioactive than its naturally occurring form, there are still concerns about its toxicity.
There have been numerous reports linking them to a range of illnesses, including birth defects and cancers. The situation has been particularly severe in Iraq, where doctors have reported a significant increase in such conditions since the Gulf War. The US fired approximately one million depleted uranium rounds during this conflict, and the situation has only worsened since the 2003 invasion of the country.
During the Iraq and Gulf wars in 1991 and 2003, the UK and US also utilised similar ammunitions. A recent review of studies published in BMJ Global Health has emphasised the “potential associations” between long-term health issues among Iraqis and the use of depleted uranium during these conflicts. Pressure is also coming from the NGOs working for anti-nuclear programmes.
The UK decision to send ammunition has been strongly criticised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), who consider it to be an “added environmental and health catastrophe for those enduring the conflict”. This is due to the fact that on impact, these munitions can release toxic or radioactive dust, causing further harm. The CND has repeatedly urged the UK government to impose an immediate ban on the use of depleted uranium weapons and to finance comprehensive research into their long-term health and environmental effects.
UK is sending uranium rounds to Ukraine as the ammunition would be very effective in neutralising the armoured vehicles that Russia has deployed there. However, as the White House and its allies are pushing to provide Ukraine with more potent weaponry, critical discussions about the unforeseen and hazardous outcomes of these transfers will be catching the headlines across the globe. Apparently, Moscow will react seriously to the use of these antitank shells in the on-going conflict.
Though Putin and his team have not yet put forward specificities of their reaction to such a scenario, two possibilities are very much apparent. One, Russia, which also possesses depleted uranium tank shells called Svinets-2, may also use these shells to target the advanced battle tanks being provided by the US and West. Two, as we can trace a hint from Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu’s statement, Moscow may also resort to the tactical nuclear weapons to counter these hazardous – but highly effective – tank-busting shells. Both scenarios are dreadful and may hamper the efforts being made for a negotiated peace there.
Indubitably, the depleted uranium being used in the antitank shells has nothing to do with the nuclear weapons, but the emission of low levels of radiation from depleted uranium munitions has prompted the UN nuclear watchdog to caution against their handling and issue warnings about the potential risks of exposure. The reaction from the Russian side on the transfer of these controversial antitank shells is a new development with the possibilities of further escalation in the Ukraine conflict.
According to Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Russian parliament’s lower house, the distribution of depleted uranium rounds could result in “a worldwide catastrophe that would primarily impact European nations.” Volodin claimed that the utilisation of such American ammunition in past conflicts in Yugoslavia and Iraq resulted in “radioactive pollution and a significant increase in cancer cases.” But it seems that the White House and Downing Street are not ready to budge on this matter. They are probably sold on the point that such highly effective weaponry is crucial in muffling the Soviet T-72 tanks that Moscow is gearing up to use in the coming days. Not a good omen for the efforts for a negotiated peace there.
Dr Imran Khalid is a freelance columnist on international affairs based in Karachi, Pakistan.