The War in Ukraine continues to heat up, with grueling battles taking place along the Donbas region. With a looming Ukrainian counteroffensive, NATO members have prepared the nation for a major combined arms conflict with modern tanks in the alliance’s arsenal. Currently, most of the European Union will send their updated variants of the German-made Leopard 2 tanks. The US will send a version of the M1 Abrams later this year, and Britain will send their Challengers, the latter of which has drawn the ire of the Kremlin. Moscow has given one of their strongest statements yet, stating if the tanks and their shells, which include depleted uranium (DU) rounds, are used in Ukraine, it could escalate into retaliatory measures. Though Russia sees this as escalation, the ball is currently in its court to de-escalate more so than the West.

Video courtesy of YouTube and The Guardian

What is Depleted Uranium?

As recently reported by our friends at Newsweek,

“Depleted Uranium, or DU, is what is left over after the vastly more radioactive form of uranium, U-235, is taken from natural uranium ore. U235 is the stuff used to power nuclear power plants and give nuclear warheads their explosive power. It is extremely effective at killing tanks.” 

DU is extremely hard and dense, almost twice as dense as lead. It’s like an incredibly heavy dart and will penetrate just about any armor out there. When it penetrates the tank, it shatters the armor dispersing it inside as hot shrapnel killing the unlucky occupants,” he said. “As DU penetrator round hits a target, its surface temperature increased dramatically causing localized softening of the armor, kind of like a hot knife through butter. The extreme heat also tends to make the tank’s fuel load and/or ammunition explode. Tankers call this ‘behind the target effectiveness.’

Mr. Putin is fully aware that these in no way are nuclear weapons in the sense an atomic bomb would be. The UN does not consider DU ammunition to be nuclear weapons. It would kind of be like saying a spoiled ham sandwich is a biological weapon…the two just don’t equate

Some DU poses radiation leaks and environmental concerns, but the current armaments of the Challenger 2 pose little risk and have been used for decades. Depleted uranium has been used in previous wars against Iraq and Yugoslavia with accusations of potential correlation to birth defects in the aftermath of those conflicts.

Why is Russia Concerned?

President Putin, and Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, have implied that DU rounds are similar to nuclear weapons. This has drawn remarks as desperation from Western nations as DU rounds have been used by various military powers for decades—including Russia themselves. A 2018 report from the Russian state-owned outlet TASS stated the Ministry of Defense (MOD) had converted their T80BV Tank variant to fire depleted uranium shells. These tanks have been used and fired frequently in Ukraine.

Russia is Feeling the Pressure over a Faltering War

Perhaps, Russia feels like it has been under pressure amongst its immense armor and personnel losses during their ongoing war in Ukraine. With a growing shadow conflict between the Wagner Group and MOD over a lack of logistical allocations, Russia’s highly publicized winter offensive has faltered. Ambitions to capture the entirety of the Donbas region by the late spring have now been mitigated to only a potential capture of Bakhmut and Avdiivka, in which Russian forces have suffered tens of thousands of casualties for minimal gains.

Ukraine has been amassing forces for its spring offensive, which could come around late April/early May. Probing and shaping operations have already taken place along the grey zones of the Zaporizhzhia front, where it is analyzed the Ukrainian Armed Forces (ZSU) will make a push for the highly strategic cities of Melitopol and Mariupol. Southern Ukraine has a primarily flat terrain, and due to the low concealment, Kyiv will rely on the modern Challengers, Leopards, and the Bradley IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicles) to conduct mechanized offensives along the front.

With Poland and Slovakia now transferring MiG 29 fighter jets, this allows a more efficient combined arms movement whenever Ukraine decides to go on the offensive. Prominent Russian bloggers have already raised concerns that if gains aren’t consolidated by mid-Spring, all minimal progress they made in the winter will be reversed by the imminent Ukrainian counteroffensive. Where Ukraine has seen a renewed push by NATO members to commit heavier weapons and a growing logistical chain, Russia is now relying on Cold War era tanks like the T55s and supplies from Iran and North Korea just to maintain any hope of sustained military capabilities.

Ongoing Nuclear Bluff Card

By correlating depleted uranium shells to nuclear fallout, the Kremlin is attempting to once again ignite fears that they will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. This is a bluff that has been called multiple times throughout the war to where even China, the one country currently keeping Russia from collapsing, has stated its impending displeasure if nuclear weapons are ever used in this war.

The growing panic and propaganda inside Moscow over modern tanks with depleted uranium munitions going to Kyiv shows that the Kremlin fears a renewed push by the Ukrainian Armed Forces with upgraded NATO weaponry. Perhaps realizing their imperial ambitions have failed, Russia will look to continue to stoke fears of “nuclear war” and try their best to freeze the war along their September 2022 annexation lines—favorably on their terms.

This cannot be allowed.