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Top allies warn Russia against using ‘dirty bomb’ accusations to escalate the war


A gravedigger at work Sunday in a cemetery in the Dnipro region for members of the Ukrainian armed forces killed since Russia invaded on Feb. 24.

By Matt Stevens and Helene Cooper


The top diplomats in France, Britain and the United States, three of Ukraine’s strongest allies, issued a rare joint statement that rejected Russia’s allegation that Kyiv is preparing to use a so-called dirty bomb on its own territory, calling it a pretext Moscow has concocted for escalating the war.


In the statement, the three governments confirmed that their defense ministers had each spoken with the Russian defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, and rejected “Russia’s transparently false allegations” about a dirty bomb.


“The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation,” the statement said.


A dirty bomb uses traditional explosives to spray radioactive material. Russia has not publicly offered evidence to back up the accusations, and Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, has called the statements “lies.”


In a separate statement, the British defense secretary, Ben Wallace, said Shoigu had accused Ukraine’s allies, including Britain, of planning “to escalate the conflict in Ukraine.” Wallace refuted those claims, the statement said, and “cautioned that such allegations should not be used as pretext for greater escalation.”


Eight months into the war, Russia finds itself on its back foot, struggling to hold onto territory in its ground war and turning to missile strikes that have damaged and destroyed civilian and infrastructure targets far from the front line. Russian President Vladimir Putin is also facing growing anxiety at home about his military’s handling of the war.


Under that backdrop, Putin has raised the specter of using nuclear weapons — a terrifying prospect that many Americans have not worried much about since the end of the Cold War — to hold on to his slipping territorial gains in Ukraine. President Joe Biden has warned that the war in Ukraine could devolve into a nuclear “Armageddon,” but the White House has emphasized that the United States has seen no signs that Russia is, in fact, gearing up to use nuclear weapons.


The most senior military commanders for the United States and Russia spoke by telephone Monday.


Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, according to a readout of the call provided by Milley’s spokesperson, Col. Dave Butler.


“The military leaders discussed several security-related issues of concern and agreed to keep the lines of communication open,” Butler said in the emailed statement.


Butler did not elaborate further, but Russia’s defense ministry said on Telegram that the discussions included its dirty bomb claims.


The discussion continued a flurry of high-level talks between Moscow and NATO allies after Shoigu’s conversations in recent days with the top defense officials in France, Britain and the United States.


Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Shoigu on Sunday for the second time in three days, U.S. officials said, in a conversation meant to delineate the red lines that could potentially provoke Russia to launch a nuclear attack on Ukraine. That was meant to clarify for the Biden administration why Putin has been increasingly raising the prospect of a nuclear strike in Ukraine, two officials said.


With his forces losing ground, Putin has sought to portray territory in Ukraine he illegally annexed as part of “Mother Russia.” He has said that any U.S.-backed attack inside those areas would be viewed as an attack on the Russian homeland.


Austin and Shoigu also spoke Friday at the request of the Pentagon. Before that, the two last spoke in May.

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