As US, German, and British Main Battle Tanks (MBT) head to Ukraine to push back Russia, Moscow’s military leadership has warned against arming the machines with rounds tipped with depleted uranium, which it would consider amounting to nuclear proliferation.
Other Russian officials have raised the risk of irreversible health impacts like cancer and ecological damage such rounds may trigger – sharing the concern with anti-war campaigners who have protested against the weapons for the last two decades.
However, following its interventions in the invasions of Iraq and Yugoslavia, the US seems to have discontinued using DU rounds, according to media reports and open-source information.
The head of the Russian delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Konstantin Gavrilov, while speaking at the OSCE Forum for Security and Cooperation, said, “We warn Western sponsors of the Kyiv military machine from encouraging nuclear provocations and blackmail. We know that the Leopard 2 tank, as well as the Bradley and Marder infantry fighting vehicles, are armed with uranium-core armor-piercing projectiles, the use of which leads to contamination of the area, as happened in Yugoslavia and Iraq.”
Depleted uranium (DU) is natural uranium that has been changed by removing the more radioactive isotopes, leaving it about 99.8% 238U. Depleted uranium has 40% less radioactivity than natural uranium.
Gavrilov added that Russia would consider it as using a “dirty bomb” if NATO supplies Kyiv with such shells for “heavy military equipment,” adding they would be responsible for all the “ensuing consequences.”
Gavrilov meanwhile also accused “American allies” of threatening Germany with “international isolation” if the nation refused to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.
“First, the allies threatened Berlin with international isolation in case of refusal to transfer the Leopards. Then none other than the representative of the US State Department, Ned Price, announced ‘imminent news’ regarding the direction of the German beast to Kyiv. This is how transatlantic ‘solidarity’ is forged,” Gavrilov said.
Depleted Uranium tips have been commonly used in high-caliber heavy machine gun rounds and tank ammunition to allow the projectiles to penetrate through heavy metal armor since it ignites at temperatures exceeding 1000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The American A-10 Warthog chin-mounted GAU 30mm Avenger rotating Gatling gun uses rounds with DU tips. Conversely, tank armor is made of DU to protect from high explosive armor piercing rounds.
The Leopard-2, however, does not seem to use DU rounds, as open-source literature suggests, mainly stemming from Germany’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons.
Berlin, however, does have a civilian nuclear program. The case with US machines is different, which used DU ammunition to devastating effect on civilian and military targets in its invasions of Iraq and Yugoslavia.
In Iraq, US jets, specifically, fired nearly 10,000 DU rounds, of which 1,500 were aimed at Iraqi troops, while others were aimed at civilian targets in As Samawah, Nasiriyah, and Basrah.
According to the Dutch peace group PAX, 300,000 DU rounds are estimated to have been fired by the US military in Iraq since 2003. Former Democratic Congressman Jim McDermott had said in 2014 how the highly radioactive material had caused severe and long-lasting injuries to Iraqis.
RIA Novosti quoted military science doctor Konstantin Sivkov, who said the uranium dust produced by using such bullets deposited in the ground is radioactive and highly toxic, is not subject to decontamination, and causes severe cancer outbreaks among the local population.
However, recent reports indicate even American efforts to discontinue the use of the controversial ammunition.
In December 2021, US Army Contracting Command awarded General Dynamic a contract for demilitarization and disposal of depleted uranium, with a deadline of November 20, 2026.
The agreement aims to dispose of even the DU armor, protecting several American tank models and armor-piercing projectiles used in munitions such as fired by the GAU-8 Avenger gun. In 2022, US arms maker Northrop Grumman said it was ceasing depleted uranium weapons production.
In a transcript released by the White House of a background call with journalists, a senior administration official refused to get into the “technical specification” of the platform.
This was in response to a question about whether the US was sending DU rounds and which variant of the Abrams tank was chosen for Ukraine.
Russia’s concern can be traced to its previous official allegations of Ukraine preparing a “dirty bomb,” using its experience with atomic weapons since the times of the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR).
Another tactic Russia said Ukraine would use is continuing to strike the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) with artillery, where any hit on the spent nuclear fuel site would lead to a dirty bomb effect.