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Western Officials Warn Russia Could Use a Dirty Bomb as a Pretext

WASHINGTON — Top officials from the United States, Britain and France sought on Monday to call out what they said was a transparent ploy by Moscow to create a pretext for escalating the war in Ukraine, rejecting claims by the Kremlin that Kyiv was preparing to detonate a dirty bomb on its own territory.

The strikingly public effort to expose the suspected Russian maneuver, which began with a joint statement issued on Sunday by the three allies, reflected a belief in Washington, London and Paris that President Vladimir V. Putin’s commanders may be preparing the ground for a sharp escalation in the war.

While the officials said that there was no change in Russia’s nuclear posture, and they believed no decision had been made to use a tactical nuclear weapon, they made clear that a move in that direction was their central concern.

“We’ve not seen any reason to adjust our own nuclear posture, nor do we have indications that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons,” Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, said Monday. “But we’ve heard these very concerning statements, and we wanted to send a very clear signal.”

The rare joint statement by the top diplomats in the United States, France and Britain had echoes of the move before the invasion of Ukraine to expose intelligence about Russia’s forthcoming moves, in hopes of complicating the narrative for Mr. Putin. While not all of those actions came to pass, some did — and Mr. Putin was not deterred from the invasion.

In the statement, the three governments confirmed that their defense ministers had each spoken with Mr. Shoigu, and they rejected “Russia’s transparently false allegations” about a dirty bomb.

“The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation,” the statement said.

The White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, issued a carefully worded statement that specifically mentioned the dirty bomb.

“We reject Russia’s transparently false allegations that Ukraine is preparing to use a dirty bomb on its own territory,” she said. Later she added: “But obviously, we are concerned about the false allegation being used as a pretext for further escalation. And we’ve made clear, we reject these allegations. And so we have not seen any reason to adjust our own, for example, nuclear posture.”

The decision to go public with the accusations came after two conversations between Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and his Russian counterpart, Mr. Shoigu.

The foreign minister of Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba, posted to Twitter that he had invited the International Atomic Energy Agency to come into the country to confirm that Ukraine is not building dirty bombs. He said he spoke with both Mr. Blinken and Rafael Grossi, the director general of the I.A.E.A., who is in Washington this week.

Periodically during the Ukraine war, Mr. Putin and other Russian officials have issued various nuclear threats — an apparent reminder to the United States and its allies that there are limits to Moscow’s tolerance of their support for Kyiv.

Making sure the war does not escalate to the use of nuclear weapons has hung over White House decision making since before Moscow’s invasion. As a result, the United States has not delivered weapons to Ukraine that could reach deep into Russia, even as it has stepped up its supply of arms that have had a devastating impact on the Russian army fighting in Ukraine.

Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

But the phone calls and official statements over the weekend signaled a growing worry across Western capitals. The fears were explained, at least in part, by other moves Mr. Putin has made in recent weeks.

In mid-September, officials noted that even as worries of nuclear escalation lurked in the background, Mr. Putin had various steps to take, short of using such a weapon, to escalate the conflict with Ukraine in more conventional ways. Mr. Putin could conduct a mobilization of his population or launch widespread attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, for example.

Now, a little more than a month later, Mr. Putin has taken those two steps, conducting a partial mobilization and beginning widespread attacks on Ukraine’s power grid. The mobilization is meant to shore up his faltering army. The drone and missile strikes on the electric grid are both meant to hamper Ukrainian military operations and break the will of the Ukrainian people by plunging the country into darkness as winter approaches.

Some officials note that Mr. Putin may want to see how either of those moves play out in the months to come before taking more steps to intensify the war.

Still, using a nuclear weapon could very likely undermine Mr. Putin at home.

Even before the war, U.S. officials began warning about various possible Russian “false flag” operations that Moscow was hoping to use to create a pretext for the invasion. Russia, for example, said Ukraine was planning to use a chemical weapon, and then American intelligence uncovered a plot by Russia to hire crisis actors to create a false pretext for invasion.

Pentagon officials were on edge Monday after three phone calls in four days between the Defense Department’s top civilian official and top uniformed officer. On Friday, Mr. Austin initiated a phone call with Mr. Shoigu, his Russian counterpart, the first time the two men had spoken since May.

The conversation was meant to delineate the red lines that could potentially provoke Russia to launch a nuclear attack on Ukraine and to clarify for the Biden administration why Mr. Putin has been raising the prospect of a nuclear strike in Ukraine, three officials said.

Defense Department officials were surprised when two days later, Mr. Shoigu requested another call, at 7:30 a.m. Sunday, in which he accused Ukraine of preparing to use a dirty bomb, two officials said.

The allegation, which the United States has said was baseless, spooked senior defense and military officials, who expressed concern that Moscow might be using the false flag as a distraction, masking some other more ominous development.

That possibility only heightened concerns among already jittery senior Pentagon officials about Russia’s next possible step up the escalation ladder. One senior U.S. official said there were new, troubling developments involving Russia’s nuclear arsenal. The official asked for anonymity and declined to provide any details, given the sensitivity of the issue.

At a Pentagon briefing on Monday, a senior U.S. military officer said there was no indication that Mr. Putin had made a decision to use unconventional weapons — nuclear, chemical or biological arms — but offered no details.

American officials have said they had seen no movement of any of Russia’s 2,000 or so tactical nuclear weapons. Because the weapons are small, it is unclear whether they would see the weapons — though they may see or hear activity by Russia’s nuclear-trained forces.

Also on Monday, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with his Russian counterpart, General Gerasimov, according to a readout of the call provided by General Milley’s spokesman, Col. Dave Butler.

“The military leaders discussed several security-related issues of concern and agreed to keep the lines of communication open,” Colonel Butler said in the emailed statement.

Edward Wong contributed reporting from Washington, and Matt Stevens from Seoul.

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