Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Radiological Agitprop in Ukraine?

Radiological Agitprop in Ukraine?

By John R. Haines

On Monday 5 May 2014, the Security Service of Ukraine[1] or “SBU” announced the seizure of a 1.5kg quantity of radioactive material containing suspected uranium in a car in southwestern Ukraine.

“The Counterintelligence Security Service seized in the Chernivtsi region a 1.5kg quantity of suspected radioactive material containing uranium.  ‘The hazardous material was brought into Ukraine from the self-proclaimed Transdniestria Republic in a car with foreign license plates, contained within a homemade canister,’ according to Marina Ostapenko, an SBU spokesperson.  Ostapenko stated the SBU detained 10 persons during the operation, one of whom is identified in initial reports as a citizen of the Russian Federation.  The SBU has not ruled out the possibility that the detainees intended to use the material to build a so-called “dirty bomb” for use in ‘mass actions’ in the southern and the eastern regions of Ukraine.”[2]

The SBU statement indicated that criminal proceedings had been initiated for “illegal handling of radioactive materials.”

This report is simultaneously disturbing and curious.  It is disturbing because the Black Sea littoral has long been the epicenter of nuclear smuggling, with some dozen incidents reported in Moldova alone, the most recent of which involved the June 2011 interdiction of a 1kg mass of uranium-235, and the August 2010 interdiction of a 1.8kg mass of uranium-238.  Yesterday’s report is not on its face implausible, given the widely held belief that one or more groups within Transdniestria possess quantities of illicit nuclear material, including some reports of Soviet-era military-grade radiologic weapons.

That being said, the report is somewhat curious on a couple of levels, including the observation that while it appears in the online Ukrainian language version of Ukrayinsʹka pravda (Ukrainian Pravda] it does not appear on the English language version of the website.  Given that any act of radiologic terrorism, successful or otherwise, would represent a serious, highly consequential escalation of the conflict within Ukraine, it is puzzling that the Ukrainian government has not actively disseminated the report, especially, for example, in English.  The sole English language reference to the incident is a cryptic report in today’s [6 May 2014] Kyiv Post under the headline “Tiraspol denies Transdniestrian origin of uranium found in Ukraine”:

“The Transdniestrian State Security Committee has refuted a statement of the Ukrainian Security Service alleging the Transdniestrian origin of uranium-235 found in Chernivtsi region.“[3]

The timing of the report also coincides with published reports of the Ukrainian government sending “an elite national guard unit to reestablish control” in Odessa, something consistent with its actions in Slovyansk, where Interior Ministry Omega and SBU Alpha anti-terrorist unit forces were deployed in the past few days.[4] 

Taken altogether, it may not be seen as unreasonable to question whether these events suggest a foreign flag-type operation, wherein a security service stages an incident as a provocation, something both sides in the conflict have alleged in other circumstances over the past several weeks.

[1] Ukrainian: Контррозвідка СБУ.  Ukrainian transl.:  Kontrrozvidka SBU.  The literal translation of the term is “Counterintelligence Security Service.”

[2] See: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine website [Ukrainian language version]. Last accessed 5 May 2014.  See also: “В СБУ розповіли про засідки снайперів та радіаційну ‘брудну бомбу’.” [“SBU describes sniper ambush and radiation ‘dirty bomb’.”]. Українська правда(Ukrainian Pravda]. Monday 5 May 2014 13:13.  Translated from Ukrainian by the author. Last accessed 6 May 2014.

[3]  Last accessed 6 May 2014.  A Washington DC-based entity called the “Moldova Foundation” [] yesterday tweeted a link to the Ministry of Internal Affairs story [in Ukrainian].

[4] The tag “national guard” is a misnomer: Omega is a special unit within the Interior Ministry’s Kyev command and not part of the Ukrainian National Guard; similarly, Alpha is a special unit within the SBU.