The UK’s decision to send tank ammunition that contains depleted uranium to Ukraine has sparked a fierce backlash from Russia, which has accused London of violating international law and threatening a nuclear confrontation, despite the fact that Russian forces have been using depleted uranium munitions in Ukraine since the beginning of its invasion of the country in February 2022.
Depleted uranium (DU) is a by-product of the process of enriching natural uranium for use in nuclear reactors or weapons. It has about 40% less radioactivity than natural uranium, but it retains its high density and hardness, which make it ideal for piercing armour and steel. DU is used in some types of tank shells, anti-tank missiles, and aircraft munitions.
However, DU also poses serious health and environmental risks. When a DU weapon hits a target, it creates a cloud of dust and vapour that can be inhaled or ingested by humans or animals. DU can damage the kidneys, lungs, liver, bones, and other organs. It can also increase the risk of cancer and birth defects. Moreover, DU can contaminate soil and water for decades or longer.
The use of DU weapons has been controversial for years. Several countries have banned or restricted their use, while others have denied or downplayed their effects. The UN has called for more research on the impact of DU weapons on human health and the environment. Some experts have argued that DU weapons violate international humanitarian law principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution.
The UK’s announcement that it will send some DU ammunition to Ukraine along with 14 Challenger 2 tanks has provoked an angry response from Russia, which invaded Ukraine last year and annexed Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Moscow would be forced to react accordingly if the West used weapons with a “nuclear component”. He did not specify what kind of reaction he had in mind.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the UK’s decision left fewer steps before a potential “nuclear collision” between Russia and the West. He said that Russia had something to answer with to counter the threat of DU weapons. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the plan the “Yugoslavia scenario”, referring to NATO’s use of DU weapons during its bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence defended its decision by saying that DU is a standard component in its armour-piercing shells and has nothing to do with nuclear weapons. It said that independent research by scientists had assessed that any impact on personal health and the environment from the use of DU munitions was likely to be low. It also accused Russia of deliberately trying to disinform.
The US said that it would not send any munitions with DU to Ukraine as part of its military aid package worth $200 million. A Pentagon spokesman said that there was no need for such ammunition given Ukraine’s existing capabilities.