Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 10

Russian military and government officials have moved quickly over the past week to fan the flames of discord which have broken out in Europe over health risks said to be associated with NATO’s use of depleted uranium munitions during the alliance’s 1999 air war in Yugoslavia. For Moscow, the debate offers three diplomatic opportunities: to encourage the emerging splits in the alliance which have only deepened with the advent of the depleted uranium issue, to resume Russian attacks on NATO for the 1999 air war itself, and to deflect attention anew from Russia’s own continuing bloody war in the Caucasus. With these goals in mind, Russian officials have demanded an international inquiry into the health effects of NATO’s use of depleted uranium munitions in the Balkans. Meanwhile, one senior Russian military leader has made especially incendiary remarks regarding NATO’s alleged motivations for using the munitions in the 1999 war. A Russian lawmaker has dusted off Moscow’s earlier accusations that Western leaders are guilty of war crimes for the actions of NATO forces in Yugoslavia.

At the heart of this raging European debate are the 31,000 rounds of depleted uranium munitions the alliance fired during the 1999 Kosovo campaign and the nearly 11,000 rounds fired in the course of the earlier 1994-1995 Bosnian conflict. The controversy arose following charges by Italy and several other European countries that the depleted munitions might be responsible for a spate of cancer cases and deaths among veterans who had served as peacekeepers in the Balkans. Despite denials from both NATO and some health experts that the munitions in question posed any health risk, the charges compelled the alliance to open an inquiry of its own into the subject. Italy, Germany, Greece and Norway demanded that NATO remove the munitions from its arsenals. The United States, Britain and France rejected the idea. They favor continued use of the depleted uranium in anti-armor munitions because of the metal’s exceptional penetrating qualities (Washington Post, January 10-11; Reuters, January 11).

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has added his voice to those in Europe demanding an inquiry. In remarks he made on January 8 after a meeting with the new head of the UN administration for Kosovo, Ivanov called for “independent, objective checks at the level of experts of the United Nations and other specialist bodies, the International Atomic Energy Agency, [and] the World Health Organization.” Ivanov said that the checks should aim at determining the “real level of risk” from the depleted uranium in the Balkans (Reuters, AFP, January 9).

The remarks of a trio of Russian generals are a great deal more provocative. On January 12 Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev warned that the international uproar over the depleted munitions was just beginning. He suggested that the Defense Ministry would make a far more politicized proposal for an inquiry to the Russian government: namely, that President Vladimir Putin hold an international conference of specialists on the problem under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or the UN. Another top Defense Ministry official spoke in a similar vein. Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, the notorious hardline head of the ministry’s foreign liaison department, demanded that NATO conduct a study of the health of Yugoslavia’s citizenry–not merely the peacekeepers who have served in the Balkans–and that the countries of the Western alliance foot the bill for any necessary cleanup. “All actions in assessing this damage and in dealing with the consequences must be conducted by countries of the North Atlantic alliance at their expense,” the general was quoted as saying (Reuters, AFP, January 12).

But the most inflammatory remarks were clearly those of General Anatoly Kornukov. The Russian Air Force chief bluntly accused NATO of having used depleted uranium munitions in Yugoslavia not solely for military reasons, but also simply to dispose of unwanted weapons in as inexpensive a manner as possible. “There was the dumping of ammunition, which was supposed to be recycled, but recycling costs much more than dumping during air raids,” Kornukov said. In remarks carried by Russian television, Kornukov also dismissed Clinton administration assurances regarding the benign health effects of the depleted uranium munitions. “All statements made on this matter by the official representatives of the U.S. administration, including [Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright, are aimed at amateurs,” he was quoted as saying (AFP, RIA, January 11; Reuters, January 12).

One point on which Russian military sources appeared to disagree, however, was whether the Soviet or Russian militaries had themselves ever fielded depleted uranium weapons. A Russian Defense Ministry source was quoted by AFP on January 10 as denying that the Soviet armed forces had ever possessed depleted uranium weapons. Kornukov, however, appeared to contradict the denial in his January 11 remarks, saying that Russia “does not possess” such ammunition. “We got rid of it a long time ago,” he reportedly said. The original Russian denial came in response to an accusation from a German military official to the effect that Soviet troops stationed in East Germany may indeed have stockpiled such weapons there. The official drew the further conclusion that former Soviet military bases in what was then East Germany might therefore now be contaminated from the depleted uranium munitions (AFP, January 10-11).

Meanwhile, amid the recriminations over NATO’s use of depleted uranium in the Balkans, Russian military officials have indicated that they have thus far found no indication of their own military forces having suffered any ill effects from radiation while serving in the Balkans. The Defense Ministry will apparently try to test as many as possible of the 10,000 or so Russian veterans who have served on peacekeeping missions in the Balkans. It has also dispatched radiation safety experts to the sector of Kosovo currently controlled by Russian troops (Reuters, AFP, January 10). The issue will reportedly be one of several at the top of Russian Defense Minister Sergeev’s agenda during a visit to Yugoslavia scheduled for early February.