The UK Ministry of Defence has confirmed it will supply Challenger 2 tanks, which utilise armour piercing rounds using depleted uranium, (DU) to the armed forces of Ukraine.
The Kremlin has previously warned Western powers it would consider the use of DU in Ukraine as a ‘dirty bomb’.
On hearing the news, Vladimir Putin has declared Russia “will have to respond accordingly” while Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said it brings the world ever closer to a “nuclear collision”.
The MOD meanwhile has defended its position, citing the use of DU munitions by UK and US forces for decades as indication they are “a standard component” of warfare.
Depleted Uranium encased munitions were first used by US forces in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, during which between 315 and 350 tons of DU was expended across Iraq.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has also estimated that between 170 and 1700 tons of DU, primarily in the form of tank rounds, has been used by the US military in Iraq since the US led invasion in 2003.
DU was also used in NATO’s airstrikes against Yugoslav forces in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH), Serbia and Kosovo between 1995 and 1999, whereby approximately 40,000 30mm rounds fired from A-10 Warthog jets, left approximately 13 tons of DU scattered across the region.
Human and Environmental Impact
The UK and US have insisted on no connection between the effects of DU in the Balkans and increased cancer rates, citing ‘inconclusive’ studies conducted on NATO soldiers that were deployed to the region.
However, clinicians from across the peninsula often recount a spike in malignancies in the years following NATO’s airstrikes.
In 2003, the UN’s Environment Programme also confirmed DU had contaminated some sites and water supplies in BiH, while studies in 2007 found chromosome aberrations were “significantly higher” among employees of the Hadzici tank repair facility, which was hit with NATO’s DU munitions.
In Iraq too prominent Doctors have maintained that DU has been responsible for a spike in the rates of miscarriages, birth deformations, leukaemia, and kidney and thyroid cancers.
After the Gulf War in particular, the suffering caused by the effects of DU was compounded by the crippling sanctions that prohibited Iraq from importing of much needed equipment and medicines required in the treatment of these conditions.
In Ukraine, particular concern has also been voiced over the impact of DU on its agricultural capabilities, which are of crucial importance given its role as a major global supplier of grain.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated that “the use of munitions with depleted uranium will sharply reduce, if keep at all, the capabilities of Ukraine to make high quality non-contaminated food”.
Opposition to Use
While the UK attempts to portray the use of DU munitions as run of the mill, it is clear the rest of the world may not be so certain.
In December 2008, 141 states supported a UN resolution requesting that the UN’s Environment Programme, World Health organisation, and International Atomic Energy Agency, update their research on the impact of uranium munitions.
With 34 abstentions and 13 absences, the only 4 nations to vote in opposition were the US, UK, Israel and France, that is 60% of the UN Security Council’s big 5 members.
These 4 states particularly, have repeatedly voted against UN resolutions and EU moratoriums, either requesting a prohibition on the use of DU munitions or additional conferences on and research into its effects.
Ukraine’s Potential NATO Membership
During my last visit to BiH, a local of Banja Luka explained to me that the use of DU munitions in BiH is remembered as an excessive cruelty in the collective memory of the people there.
With NATO integration increasingly being pursued by elements within BiH’s government, he explained that for many the use of DU is a determining factor in their rejection of NATO membership.
Nevertheless, Stoltenberg has recently affirmed that in Ukraine it will be different, and that” Ukraine will become a member of NATO”.
Though as many Ukrainians have already suffered through the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, it may be that the supply of DU by NATO powers is perceived as a further poisoning of their land, and a potentially clinching factor in turning many away from NATO membership.