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Putin makes unsubstantiated claim that Ukraine has plans to use a dirty bomb

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Just how far can Russia push a disinformation campaign about Ukraine?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Vladimir Putin is picking up a theme previously brought up by lower-ranking Russians. He is making an evidence-free claim about Ukraine that the U.S. says is false. Putin spoke at a meeting of intelligence chiefs from former Soviet republics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MARTIN: What he said there - "We are aware of plans by Ukraine to use a dirty bomb as a provocation." Now, Russia gave no evidence of Ukraine planning to use a bomb that would spread radiation on its own territory. The U.S. has warned that Russia may be setting a pretext for its own future actions.

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes is covering this story from Moscow. Hey there, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there. Good morning.

INSKEEP: How has Russia injected this claim into the global discourse?

MAYNES: You know, it all started over the weekend when members of Russia's defense ministry held calls with U.S. officials and started talking about dirty bombs. Then we heard from Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, then the foreign ministry and, of course, state media. So it's been a steady drumbeat here. And the Russian argument - it basically amounts to this. Ukraine civilian nuclear facilities are being used to create a dirty bomb to detonate in Ukraine to then blame on Russia. And yesterday, as you said, Putin himself made the same charge in a video address. And that's raised concerns over what Putin might do next.

INSKEEP: OK, so you have this claim being made again and again without any evidence given, although the United States has already warned that it would be an incredibly serious mistake for Russia to detonate some kind of explosive device and blame it on Ukraine. How has this - how does this fit into Moscow's broader efforts to use nuclear threats in the war?

MAYNES: Well, you know, from the beginning, Putin has issued not-particularly-veiled threats to keep the West from getting too involved in Ukraine. For example, he raised Russia's nuclear alert level in the early days of the conflict, although U.S. officials said - and this is important - they saw no actual change in Russia's nuclear posture. Now, more recently, Putin said Russia would use any means necessary to defend what Moscow claims are these newly annexed Russian territories in Ukraine, with Putin warning it was no bluff. And, you know, there are some in the West that are worried that this latest Russian charge concerning the dirty bomb reflects Putin's dwindling options on the battlefield. You know, as Russia has struggled, in part because of Western arms support to Ukraine, there are even voices here in Moscow that argue only a massive strike or the threat of one could shift Russia's fortunes. And so Russia's dirty bomb allegations, true or not, could in - some in the West say - provide Moscow with a pretext to take more drastic measures.

INSKEEP: Russia also did something else that could be seen as nuclear saber-rattling - a test of its nuclear defenses yesterday. Here's some of the sound of that sent by their defense ministry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE BEEPING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Russian).

INSKEEP: Somewhat ominous sounds there. What do we make of that?

MAYNES: Well, you know, let's be clear. You know, the Russians do these drills around this time every year. And Russian officials did warn the U.S. of these maneuvers in advance, as they're supposed to. So it wasn't a surprise. And the U.S. has its own version of this. Putin oversaw tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles, fired by land, air and sea, in what was a simulation of Russia's response to an enemy nuclear attack. So, you know, it's a drill, but it's also a message, given the timing, and one that leaves the West with the same question it's had throughout the conflict in Ukraine - how far is Russia willing to go? We might get some more clues later today when Putin is expected to give a major foreign policy speech.

INSKEEP: NPR's Charles Maynes will be listening from Moscow. Charles, thanks so much.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.