In April and May 1986, heavy rainfall across the hills of northern Wales would leave decades-worth of consequences for the local farmers. Alarming quantities of radioactive caesium and iodine were detected in the soil, resulting in authorities issuing a blanket ban on the sale of all farm animals in the affected area, threatening livelihoods and creating panic among the locals.

This contamination had spread all the way from Ukraine, stemming from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on 26 April. This event is believed to have caused the deaths of at least 4,000 people, resulting in untold numbers of children born with abnormalities, and forced the evacuation of more than 100,000 Ukrainians and Belarussians.

In total, 344 Welsh farms were put under restrictions, with their animals’ radiation levels monitored before they could be sold at market. The number of failing animals peaked in 1992, but some still recorded higher levels of caesium as recently as 2011. Roughly 300 farms were still under restrictions as late as 2012, when they were finally lifted. The continent-wide effects of the Chernobyl disaster come to mind when listening to the claims and accusations around the topic of CBRN threats coming out of the war. Russian President Vladimir Putin has, at several points, issued claims directed at Ukraine over its supposed development of a ‘dirty bomb’. Needless to say, no evidence was provided.

The Ukrainians, naturally, were outraged. “We neither have any ‘dirty bombs’, nor plan to acquire any,” said Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in direct response to Putin. “Russians often accuse others of what they plan themselves.” The escalation of this rhetoric around CBRN threats has, as Kuleba noted, created fears that Russia is planting the seeds for deniability over the use of its own CRBN capabilities.

War crimes by proxy

There is some reason to fear the lessons Russia has learned through its proxy wars, such as in Syria. While the Syrian civil war began all the way back in 2011, direct Russian involvement only came into play in 2015. Since then, however, the conflict has seen considerable use of what Hamish de Bretton-Gordon would call “unconventional violence”.

“In Syria, one of the key aspects was using chemical weapons against civilians,” the former UK and Nato commander of CBRN forces notes. “And General [Sergei] Surovikin, who’s the leader of Russian forces in Ukraine, was a key part of the architecture and design of that.”

And while Russia, to date, has so far held off from using targeted CBRN weaponry on Ukrainian forces or civilians, it has certainly shown its willingness to target civilians through conventional means. Currently, there is considerable concern over how Russia has been targeting Ukrainian infrastructure, including several factories containing toxic chemicals in the north and south of the country.

Back in 2016, the Islamic State launched an attack on the Al-Mishraq sulphur plant in northern Iraq, setting fire to the complex. At the time, de Bretton- Gordon was serving as the chemical weapons advisor for the Peshmerga – the military forces of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Toxic fumes from the burning plant cut across the advancing Iraqi army, inflicting casualties and creating confusion. Two civilians died and nearly a thousand people were treated for toxic gas inhalation. Approximately 161,000t of sulphur dioxide was released over seven days – equivalent to a small volcanic eruption.

“Fortuitously, the downwind hazards of those chemical weapons have not been realised,” de Bretton-Gordon notes, regarding the attacks on Ukrainian industry. “If that was what the Russians were trying to do by bombing these chemical facilities, that hadsn’t happened.”

This is notable, however, due to recurring Russian claims of dirty bombs and false flag chemical attacks – before Putin’s accusations, a Russian Ministry of Defence briefing claimed that Ukrainian forces had blown up a tank of fertiliser in the Kharkiv region to accuse Russia of using chemical weapons. Similarly, Russia has claimed that the US and the UK have been developing biological weapons at three sites within Ukraine. All three parties involved have vocally denounced these accusations, and denied any involvement in biological weapon development of any kind. Russia, on the other hand, is well-known to have a biological weapons programme in the works.

Going nuclear

The biggest CBRN threats facing Ukraine, however, are radiological and nuclear, according to de Bretton- Gordon. There has been considerable talk and coverage on the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons, but while the Russians do have access to about 2,000 such warheads, any attempt at using them would cause more problems than they could ever solve.

A British intelligence briefing in November 2022 stated that Russian forces appear to be replacing nuclear warheads with conventional ones in their cruise missiles. Not only does this demonstrate that Russia is running out of precision weapons, it also shows that British and American intelligence are keeping close tabs on Russia’s tactical nuclear forces.

As a result, if Russia ever did consider using a tactical nuclear weapon, Nato would likely be able to take the threat out conventionally ahead of time. Similarly, any such attempt would be all but certain to lead to Nato’s direct involvement in the war, which Russia has taken great steps to avoid up to now – though de Bretton-Gordon expects that any nuclear aggression by Russian would be met by conventional means, rather than any kind of nuclear exchange. With an improvised nuclear weapon, or a dirty bomb, however, these considerations are not at play – more importantly, any such attack would be deniable, making it difficult for Nato to justify entering the war as a direct response.

In recent months, Putin has stated his intent to power Ukraine down – seeking to switch off the lights and heating for the country in the middle of winter. The assault carried out on Ukrainian power infrastructure has been very successful to date, with millions of Ukrainians currently forced to go without power. These attacks are particularly concerning as – prior to the war – 54% of Ukraine’s energy supply came from nuclear power stations. The largest nuclear power plant in Europe, Zaporizhzhia, has been under Russian control for almost the entirety of the conflict. It is no longer producing power onto the grid – it does, however, have six active nuclear reactors.

The plant has come under shelling during the conflict, leading to a lot of finger-pointing from both sides. “The Russians have claimed that the Ukrainian army has shelled it, and Ukraine and the West have claimed that the Russians have shelled their own troops, and there’s a potential for disaster there,” says de Bretton-Gordon, before voicing his main fear: “I think Zaporizhzhia could be Putin’s euphemism for a dirty bomb.”

While Ukraine’s nuclear power plants have been constructed to withstand missile strikes, they were never designed to be attacked directly. Their cooling systems are the plants’ greatest vulnerability and, if attacked, could create fires or explosions that would contaminate the local area – and perhaps much further than that. While some might hold scepticism that Putin would risk the ensuing contamination spreading into Russian territory and affecting its people, it’s worth noting that meteorological conditions would most likely lead to any contamination being spread west into Europe rather than over to Russia, as it did after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 – as any farmer in north Wales could tell you.

A wounded bear

Putin’s restraint in his use of CBRN weapons makes it clear that he did not expect to still be fighting this war as 2022 comes to a close. Worse still, he couldn’t have expected to have lost tens of thousands of troops – with some US estimates coming to 100,000 military casualties on both sides of the war – and thousands of tanks and armoured vehicles.

“Conventionally, Russia is a spent force. It would be no match for even a small Nato country,” says de Bretton-Gordon. “I don’t think anyone realistically thinks the Russians can win this war conventionally – so, as the stakes mount up, it becomes more dangerous.”

With Russia facing the very real possibility that its forces will be pushed back out of the Donbas region in the coming months, and potentially Crimea as well, the chances of Putin turning to CBRN weaponry as a desperate ploy to turn the war around grow continually higher. In Syria, de Bretton- Gordon saw first-hand how weapons like chlorine barrel bombs could break down in days defences that had withstood years of conventional attacks.

With this in mind, de Bretton-Gordon has been using his experience running civilian CBRN training in Syria to do the same for Ukraine, and has worked on a number of apps to help people prepare for a CBRN attack. “As the war grinds on, there is more of a concern that the Russians might turn to CBRN and therefore there is more work being done on how to best protect the population,” he notes.

Antonella Cavallo, rescEU CBRN technical lead at the European Commission, is one of the people carrying out this vital work. As part of the European Commission’s department for Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) is working to support the provision of CBRN assistance to Ukraine, mobilising vital equipment to aid civilian protection in this area. All of the assistance being provided through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism (EUCPM) is intended purely for civil protection purposes. It does not deal with the delivery of weapons, munitions or artillery whatsoever.

Under the EUCPM, the ERCC has mobilised CBRN assistance from three different sources. Firstly, 26 member states have donated in-kind CBRN assistance to Ukraine, which is then transported to Ukraine under the EUCPM via three EU logistic hubs in Poland, Slovakia and Romania. This includes a wide variety of medical countermeasures and critical care equipment, along with a massive amount of both general and specialised personal protective equipment (PPE). Altogether, the EUCPM has overseen almost €500m-worth of in-kind assistance provided to Ukraine – not only for CBRN, but also for agriculture, medical, energy, shelters, and more.

Then there are the mobilised rescEU reserves. In the CBRN area, these have included antidotes, different types of therapeutics and protection equipment, which includes suits but also more specialist protective gear such as decontamination equipment, reagents, pressure sprayers, chemical detectors, and so on. CBRN support from rescEU alone comes to about €40m-worth of equipment.

Finally, private sector donations have contributed another €1.5m of therapeutics and equipment, transported by the EUCPM. “All of this has made the EU the largest donor in nuclear safety,” Cavallo notes. “Overall, the EU has actually donated around €50m so far – and more procurement is ongoing, and more donations are on their way.”

Beyond this, the EUCPM has been working to ensure cooperation and interoperability across the EU, helping to build CBRN resilience – vital work, as de Bretton-Gordon noted earlier, because any CBRN activity in Ukraine will inevitably have its effects felt throughout Europe. At the same time, over 1,600 Ukrainian patients have been evacuated to safe areas in neighbouring states or EU member states under the EUCPM to receive medical attention.

“Against the horror of the war, we have had an unprecedented number of member states and participating states that have provided support to Ukraine under the EUCPM,” says Cavallo, also praising the cooperation between the EUCPM and civil protection authorities in member and participating nations. Should Russia attempt to use its CBRN capabilities to turn the tide of the war, this work could mean the difference between life and death for many Ukrainian people. The only question that remains, then, is whether Putin will become desperate enough to turn to this solution.


The percentage of Ukraine’s pre-war energy supply that came from nuclear power stations.



The amount of in-kind assistance provided to Ukraine by 26 EU member states under the EUCPM.

European Commission