Putin says Russia ‘will respond’ if UK supplies depleted uranium shells to Ukraine

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 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.

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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.

An analysis from the World Health Organization concludes that “in some instances the levels of contamination in food and groundwater could rise after some years” and should be monitored, and recommends clean-up actions be taken where “depleted uranium contamination levels are deemed unacceptable by qualified experts”.

However, an overview by the International Atomic Energy Agency says there is a “lack of evidence for a definite cancer risk in studies over many decades” while a Royal Society study from 2001 concluded the most significant cancer risk was faced by soldiers in a tank who survived it being hit by a depleted uranium munition.

One expert, Alastair Hay, an emeritus professor of environmental toxicity at the University of Leeds, assessed toxicity data shortly after the Iraq war but said that a firm evaluation was difficult because there were so many other variables.

“One of the difficulties was trying to establish exposure given all of the uncertainties – people’s movement, where munitions were and following those people up. There were so many gaps in the evidence at the time of the Iraq war,” he said.

CND also criticised the decision, saying it was unnecessary for the UK to send such tank ammunition to Ukraine because, according to its general secretary, Kate Hudson, it “will only increase the long-term suffering of the civilians caught up in this conflict”.

The CND leader said the UK should instead “place an immediate moratorium on the use of depleted uranium weapons” – a demand the Ministry of Defence has repeatedly rejected – “and to fund long-term studies into their health and environmental impacts.”