The United States government will begin supplying Ukraine with controversial depleted uranium (DU) rounds for its war effort against Russia, according to the latest security assistance package approved by the Pentagon on Wednesday. In response to the announcement, Russia denounced the decision as a “criminal act” and threatened an escalation in hostilities.
The Pentagon aid package announced by the Department of Defense on Wednesday is worth an estimated $175 million and will be the forty-sixth tranche of equipment sent to Ukraine since August 2021. According to a news release from the DoD, the security assistance package will include:
- Equipment to support Ukraine’s air defense systems;
- Additional ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS);
- 155mm and 105mm artillery rounds;
- 81mm mortars systems and rounds;
- 120mm depleted uranium tank ammunition for Abrams tanks;
- Tube-Launched, Optically-Tracked, Wire-Guided (TOW) missiles;
- Javelin and AT-4 anti-armor systems;
- Over 3 million rounds of small arms ammunition;
- Tactical air navigation systems;
- Tactical secure communications systems and support equipment;
- Demolitions munitions for obstacle clearing; and
- Spare parts, maintenance, and other field equipment.
The 120mm DU rounds in question are super-dense armor-piercing rounds developed during the Cold War to more effectively combat Russia’s T-72 tanks—many of which are still in use during the incursion into Ukraine. These rounds will be deployed by the 31 M1A1 Abrams tanks previously promised in a different aid package.
Depleted uranium is created as a byproduct of enriching uranium for use in nuclear warheads. While depleted uranium does retain trace amounts of radiation, it is incapable of producing a nuclear reaction. Rather, the advantage lies in its density, which is superior to that of lead, making it a useful alternative as a projectile. Defense analyst Scott Boston described the impact of a DU round as “hitting like a freight train” in a statement to the Wall Street Journal. “It is very long and very dense, so it puts a great deal of kinetic energy on a specific point on an enemy armor array,” he said.
However, watchdog groups like the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons argued that even mildly irradiated uranium poses a significant risk to innocent bystanders and the environment.
The announcement of the munitions shipment came immediately after Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a surprise visit to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Wednesday. Blinken met with President Volodymyr Zelensky to “discuss [the] ongoing counteroffensive, future assistance and reconstruction efforts, and above all, to reinforce the unwavering U.S. commitment to Ukraine.”
Returned to Kyiv today to meet with our Ukrainian partners to discuss their ongoing counteroffensive, future assistance and reconstruction efforts, and above all, to reinforce the unwavering U.S. commitment to Ukraine.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) September 6, 2023
According to Reuters, the decision to include DU rounds in the shipment came after weeks of internal debate within the Biden administration, beginning shortly after the equally controversial decision to begin sending cluster bombs to Ukraine despite the risk they pose to civilians.
Russian officials responded to the announcement by condemning the decision. “This is not just an escalatory step, but it is a reflection of Washington’s outrageous disregard for the environmental consequences of using this kind of ammunition in a combat zone,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. “This is, in fact, a criminal act, I cannot give any other assessment.”
The Russian Embassy in Washington DC doubled down on this sentiment, calling it an “indicator of inhumanity” and saying that “the United States is deluding itself by refusing to accept the failure of the Ukrainian military’s so-called counteroffensive.”
This reaction was in keeping with similar statements made in March when Britain became the first country to begin shipping DU rounds to Ukraine. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Moscow would “respond accordingly, given that the collective West is starting to use weapons with a ‘nuclear component.’” This threat was reportedly followed by tactical nuclear weapons being moved to neighboring Belarus.
Despite the threat, the Biden administration has expressed its commitment to continuing to defend Ukraine from Russian hostilities. President Joe Biden has asked Congress to approve an additional $20.6 billion package for economic, military, and humanitarian aid.
The total security assistance sent to Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion in February 2022 is more than $43 billion.