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Russian Tanks Can Escape Depleted Uranium Rounds by Leaving Ukraine: NSC

Newsweek 3/23/2023 David Brennan
A Challenger 2 main battle tank uses smoke during a demonstration at the Royal Tank Regiment Regimental Parade, on September 24, 2022 in Bulford, U.K. © Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images A Challenger 2 main battle tank uses smoke during a demonstration at the Royal Tank Regiment Regimental Parade, on September 24, 2022 in Bulford, U.K.

The U.S. National Security Council spokesman has suggested the best way for Moscow's tankers to avoid the British depleted uranium munitions being sent to Ukraine would be to retreat back across the border.

London announced on Monday that it would send depleted uranium tank rounds—which are particularly effective in piercing enemy armor—along with the Challenger 2 main battle tanks being provided for Kyiv's use. The news touched off a furious reaction in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin falsely equated the munitions to nuclear weapons.


Putin threatened retaliation if the depleted uranium rounds—which have been in use in the U.S, U.K, and Russia for decades—are used on the battlefields of Ukraine, where Moscow's troops are pushing for new ground ahead of an expected Ukrainian spring counteroffensive.

NSC spokesman John Kirby on Wednesday dismissed the Kremlin's concerns about the depleted uranium munitions during a briefing with journalists. "Certainly, we would let the U.K. speak for itself in terms of what sovereign decisions they're going to make about providing ammunition," Kirby said.

"But make no mistake: This is yet another strawman through which the Russians are driving a stake. This kind of ammunition is fairly commonplace, [and has] been in use for decades."

"I think what's really going on here is Russia just doesn't want Ukraine to continue to take out its tanks and render them inoperative," Kirby added.

"And if that's really the concern—if the Russians are very concerned about their tanks staying fully operational—they can just take them across the border back into Russia and take them out of Ukraine; they don't belong there in the first place. That would be my recommendation if they're concerned about threats to their tanks."

Depleted uranium rounds are 70 percent denser than lead, producing significantly more kinetic energy. On contact with armor, parts of the rounds sheer off and self-sharpen, making their passage more deadly to tankers inside armored vehicles. Smaller than lead alternatives with the same mass, depleted uranium rounds have less aerodynamic drag and can hit targets at longer ranges. They are also inherently incendiary.

"It's going to be a bad day for Russian tankers when they meet the depleted uranium munitions, because there's simply nothing they can do to defend themselves against those," Mark Voyger—a former special adviser for Russian and Eurasian affairs to ex-commanding general of U.S. Army Europe Ben Hodges—told Newsweek.

"No Russian tank, as far as I know, can withstand such a hit," Voyger—now a non-resident senior fellow at Center for European Analysis and professor at American University of Kyiv—added.

"This is a qualitative jump," Voyger said. "Their armored forces have been decimated by the combined use of and NLAWs [Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon] and Javelins, but this is a whole new level of anti-armor weaponry."

Depleted uranium rounds were used by American and British forces in interventions in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, and in aerial bombing of targets in Serbia and Kosovo in the 1990s.

Their use has been linked with long-term radiation remnants in affected areas, though it is less clear whether this radiation has adverse effects. The International Atomic Energy Agency has said that depleted uranium is "considerably less radioactive than natural uranium." There is, the IAEA says, a "lack of evidence for a definite cancer risk in studies over many decades" regarding depleted uranium use.

A 2021 British Medical Journal study, however, found "possible associations between exposure to depleted uranium and adverse health outcomes" among Iraqis exposed to depleted uranium in Western interventions there in the 1990s and 2000s.

Kirby told reporters Wednesday: "There have been health studies done on depleted uranium munitions. It is not a radioactive threat. It is not anywhere close to going into the nuclear realm. That's why I described it earlier as a 'stake through a strawman.'"

"This is a commonplace type of munition that is used particularly for its armor-piercing capabilities," Kirby added. "So, again, if Russia is deeply concerned about the welfare of their tanks and their tank soldiers, the safest thing for them to do is to move them across the border and get them out of Ukraine."

Voyger told Newsweek that Moscow's attempts to spin the depleted uranium issue speak to its concern about the situation at the front. "This is, of course, meant to trigger some sort of reaction from the anti-war movement in the West," he said. "The main point is that it's an attempt to compensate for their weakness on battlefield."

Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry via email to request comment.

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