Edited image sources:
Wikipedia Commons, File: Leopard 2 A5 der Bundeswehr.jpg, 29.8.2022, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leopard_2_A5_der_Bundeswehr.jpg;
Datei: Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1971-053-63, Köln, USTruppen vor zerstörten Gebäude.jpg; https://de.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1971-053-63,_K%C3%B6ln,_US-Truppen_vor_zerst%C3%B6rten_Geb%C3%A4ude.jpg
The battlefield of Verdun  today
“Along the former front at Verdun, the earth is still contaminated with heavy metals and chemicals. […]
Their study, published in 2007, found that the soil is saturated with heavy metals, copper, lead and zinc, but especially arsenic and ammonium perchlorate – chemicals used in the shell fuses. Arsenic concentrations are 1000 to 2000 times higher than normal. […]
“There is a general amnesia, for a hundred years,” says Jacky Bonnemains of the environmental group Robin des Bois.
Bonnemains has been doing cartering work on the former front for 14 years. The weapons of the world war are still poisoning people, he says. The arsenic has now reached the groundwater, the soil is full of lead from the shrapnel shells.”
Source: Hopquin 2014, www.sueddeutsche.de, 24.1.2014.
After one year, the war in Ukraine has developed into a war of attrition that hardly brings either side any gains, but demands more and more human and material sacrifices from them. Forgotten are the noble goals of the Europeans, who swore after the end of the First World War that they would not allow a second Verdun. At that time, around 700,000 soldiers died at this French site alone during the First World War, partly through the use of a new weapon: poison gas. After the end of the war, the “Bone Mill of Verdun” became a memorial and the beginning of Franco-German reconciliation and pan-European cooperation.
The following generations of Europeans have obviously forgotten this historical heritage when they continue to fuel the war in Ukraine with their weapons. Estimates of the number of casualties so far on social media are even being denied. They may “reflect Russia’s military superiority in the war.” (Siggelkow 2023, ARD-Faktenfinder). There is talk of “Russia: 18,480 dead – Ukraine: 157,000 dead; Russia: 44,500 injured – Ukraine: 234,000 injured.” (as of 14.2.2023, op. cit.). Kiev, on the other hand, spoke of 145,850 fallen Russian soldiers on the anniversary of the beginning of the Russian invasion (stern.de, 24.2.2023).
The total of 300,000 dead after one year therefore seems realistic. In addition, there are 13 million refugees according to the UN relief agency UNHCR (stern.de, 24.2.2023). But where will they be able to live in future if the contested areas of south-eastern Ukraine are contaminated with toxic and environmentally harmful ammunition? How can the Ukrainian president allow the use of uranium ammunition for his territory and population. So far it has always been occupiers who have accepted such damage. Ukraine should be defended not only from the invaders but also from its own warlords.
The supporting states of the NATO alliance have a duty to reflect on their co-responsibility for a possible escalation. Depleted uranium, as a by-product of the nuclear industry, is only “slightly radioactive”, but therefore highly toxic and therefore dangerous to humans and nature. Doubts about this type of weapon of mass destruction are not least appropriate because Kiev’s closest ally and main player in the background, the USA, already doubts that a “victory” against Russia is possible. The top US military official, Chief of Staff General Mark Milley, said in late 2022: “When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it. Seize the moment.” (quoted from: edition.cnn.com, 11.11.2022).
This topic in focus provides background knowledge on the past use of this extremely dangerous uranium ammunition. It reminds us that the war in Ukraine is at the end of a long chain of unresolved military conflicts that have already caused devastating damage. This focus issue aims to make it clear that the war in Ukraine is not the sole responsibility of Russia. It must be seen as the result of an action-reaction scheme between nuclear powers. The main reason for this is the lack of a global security system in which weapons of mass destruction, including uranium ammunition, are banned and outlawed.
THE LEGAL AND POLITICAL FRAMEWORK FOR A GLOBAL BAN ON URANIUM AMMUNITION
Depleted uranium is a waste product of the nuclear industry, which enriches uranium ore (U 238) with a uranium isotope (U 235) to produce effective fuel for NPPs and nuclear weapons. The weakly radioactive residue, the depleted uranium, is suitable for the production of armour-piercing ammunition because of its high density. Although it is not part of the arsenal of nuclear weapons, it is considered highly toxic. According to this criteria, it falls under the prohibition of the Additional Protocol (1977) to the the Geneva Conventions (1949):
Genva Conventions (12.8.1949) relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, Protocol I, Art. 35 (8.6.1977)
Article 35 – Basic rules
1. In any armed conflict, the right of the Parties to the conflict to choose methods or means of warfare is not unlimited.
2. It is prohibited to employ weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.
3. It is prohibited to employ methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment.
Source: Protocol Additional 1977, Geneva Conventions, Additional Protocoll (1977), Article 35.
♦ Today, 174 of the 193 UN members are among the states that ratified the Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions (1949) (ihl-databases.icrc.org). There are no sanction mechanisms, but lawsuits show that compensation payments are enforceable (see below). Of the nuclear-weapon states, only Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and North Korea have signed the protocol (with partly restrictive additional declarations), but not the USA, India, Pakistan and Israel.
♦ In 2007, the UN General Assembly initiated a monitoring process to monitor the effects of the use of weapons containing depleted uranium. The UN Secretary-General, in cooperation with the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), must report in detail every two years on the “possible effects of uranium on humans and the environment“. (un.org/disarmament)
♦ An important body is the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (www.unscear.org). The 2016 report of the enquiry considers the risks of health damage from uranium munitions to be low (Report 2016: 431). However, it confirms the toxicity of uranium, which could affect health through drinking water or food (op. cit.: 436). “The total daily intake from water and food consumption is around 1.5 μg/d (18.6 mBq/d of 238U)” (op. cit.: 438).
USA/NATO DENY RELATED DAMAGES AND THEIR RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE VICTIMS
♦ Although the United Kingdom is one of the signatories to the Additional Protocol, it made a restrictive declaration on Article 35 in 2002. The risks of its means of warfare were “to be assessed objectively on the basis of the information available at the time.” (Declaration 2.7.2002). It relies on the UN report of 2016, which sees little risk for uranium munitions (Report 2016: 431). BBC articles, on the other hand, refer to a new UNEP report stating that there is an increased risk of cancer (bbc.com, 23.3.2023).
♦ Since the US rejects the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions (1949), it can be more open about the risks. The US government also denies that the use of uranium munitions has affected the health of its soldiers. But it mentions recent research that “there may be an association between elevated urine uranium in these Veterans and lower bone mineral density (BMD)”. US veterans may be entitled to compensation (publichealth.va.gov).
♦ In Italy, soldiers sued the government for damages for their “Balkan syndrome”. This was the name given to the clinical picture resulting from their deployment in the Yugoslav wars, in Bosnia (1993-1995) and Kosovo (1999). They suffered from symptoms of poisoning triggered by uranium dust. A total of 331 are said to have died and 3,700 soldiers fell ill (fr.de, 17.2.2017). The court imposed high compensation sums because Italy, unlike other NATO countries, had not warned of the risks.
♦ The Austrian Armed Forces published a study that critically questions the use of uranium ammunition. In many places, uranium is already being replaced by the less toxic tungsten. The authors estimate that the USA and NATO have fired about 700 tonnes of depleted uranium munitions in recent decades, 150 tonnes of which were used just for training purposes (Wildauer, Guba 2022). They refer to the UN studies and emphasise the danger of long-term environmental damage, especially if the soil is not decontaminated.
THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION OFFICIALLY RENOUNCES THE USE OF URANIUM AMMUNITION
♦ Russia, as the successor state of the Soviet Union, has adopted the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention and its Additional Protocol. President Vladimir Putin assured that Russia had “hundreds of thousands of such grenades” but did not intend to use them (radio1.news, 25.3.2023). Ukraine, too, has taken on this legacy with its statehood, but now wants to change its course: The Ministry of Defence confirmed that it would receive uranium munitions from the UK (mil.in.ua, 21.3.2023).
♦ In addition, Russia considers depleted uranium not as a “waste product” of the nuclear industry, but as a “raw material for producing so-called MOX fuel for fast neutron reactors” (ria.ru, 3.3.2020). With this technology, Rosatom is a global market leader and maintains close trade relations with Western countries (neftegaz.ru, 27.6.2020): To this day, despite the war in Ukraine, spent fuel from the EU and the USA is being recycled in Russia (neftegaz.ru, 10.3.2023).
♦ The Russian Ministry of Defence reacted to the announcement by the British government to supply uranium munitions to Ukraine. It accused NATO countries of willingly accepting environmental damage through this uranium munition, although tungsten would be a suitable substitute for uranium. It would “cause enormous economic damage to Ukraine […] and prevent the export of agricultural products […] for decades, if not centuries”. (mil.ru/news, 24.3.2023).
♦ Russia uses the issue of uranium munitions to present its threat perception towards NATO countries. It recalls NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia (1999), which took place without the approval of the UN Security Council. Russia kept a low profile then, but is all the more critical today of the war rhetoric at the time: “The order to bomb […] was given by NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, who said the operation was ‘humanitarian’.” (mil.ru/news, 24.3.2023)
THE WAR IN YUGOSLAVIA 1999: LONG-TERM DAMAGE IN BOSNIA, SERBIA UND KOSOVO
♦ Unlike the Italian soldiers, Serbs have had little success with their compensation claims. The NATO countries do not see themselves as responsible, so that they are fought out in Belgrade courts. In addition, they initially refused to hand over information about the drop sites, which made both decontamination measures and the evidence of consequential damage more difficult. Lawyer Srđan Aleksić speaks of an “ecocide – a crime against nature”. (kosmo.at, 12.3.2021, welt.de, 31.3.2023).
♦ According to the IPPNW report from 2012, 70 per cent of the 12.7 tonnes of uranium munitions fired on the territory of the former Yugoslavia fell in Kosovo alone (IPPNW-Bericht 2012: 31). NATO thus damaged the very population they claimed to be protecting from the alleged Serbian aggressors. Research into the long-term damage is hampered by the lack of will on the part of the ruling elites and by the fact that large areas are still mined today.
♦ In Bosnia-Herzegovina, too, landmines are a major safety hazard for the population because they also prevent the cleaning of the soil from pollutants: There are still about 180,000 unexploded ordnance lying there today. “More than 136,000 mines have been found and removed since 1996.” (dw.com, 6.8.2021) Almost 30 years after the NATO military mission, which also had no mandate from the UN Security Council, the EU mobilises 500 soldiers and 10 million euros for mine clearance in Bosnia (europarl, 6.7.2022).
♦ It is not only the NATO countries involved that show little interest in investigating the long-term damage caused by uranium munitions. The governments of the countries in the Western Balkans are also suppressing the issue so as not to damage their countries’ accession to the EU. The Serbian parliament, for example, voted by a majority for an agreement that grants all NATO representatives immunity and other privileges such as tax exemption (serbiennachrichten, 28.3.2016). In Kosovo, corruption gives those affected little hope of coming to terms with it (saechsische.de, 15.2.2021).
THE WAR IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN AND THEIRE CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES
♦ The “Balkan syndrome” was preceded by the so-called “Gulf War syndrome” among US soldiers who were deployed against Iraq in the Second Gulf War in 1990/91. Veterans were shown to suffer from “exhaustion, muscle pain, memory loss,” depression and sleep disorders (spiegel.de, 11.3.2008). For the first time, medical experts established a connection with the uranium ammunition used, but this is still disputed today.
♦ According to official information, around 300 tons of uranium ammunition were fired during the Second Gulf War. There are very different figures for the Third Gulf War in 2003. While government authorities state around 200 tons, experts estimate between 100 and 1,700 tons (Wildauer, Guba 2022). The IPPNW assumes the higher number and talks about the demonstrable consequences: In the city of Fallujah, children were 12 times more likely to develop cancer. The leukemia rate among children even increased 38-fold (IPPNW Falludscha).
♦ Uranium ammunition was also fired in Afghanistan (2001 – 2021), the extent of which is still unknown to this day. The silence was broken for the first time when Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused his allies of using uranium weapons (scientificamerican.com, 25.6.2011). Research reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) then attributed the increased heavy metal concentration to uranium ammunition from the Soviet military (IAEA 2018).
♦ German authorities don’t want to know anything about the clinical pictures (IPPNW 19.2.2014). The demand of 200 soldiers for compensation remains unheard (Mueller-Töwe, 2.8.2019). In response to a parliamentary question, the German government said: “There are no international agreements outlawing the use of depleted uranium ammunition. There is no legal basis to prohibit partner states from using depleted uranium munitions in equipment produced with German cooperation.” (Drucksache, 12.3.2020)
THE USE OF URANIUM AMMUNITION IN LIBYA AND SYRIA
♦ Unlike all previous military operations, NATO’s deployment in Libya can be based on a mandate from the UN Security Council (Resolution 1973 17.3.2011). Germany, as a non-permanent member, abstained from voting at the time. Originally, it was about monitoring the no-fly zone to protect the civilian population. Only five days later, NATO launched its military operations against the Libyan army. Its aim was regime change, which resulted in a proxy war. (bundeswehr.de, 27.9.2021).
♦ Years later, Russian sources reported the use of uranium ammunition (sputnikarabic.ae, 2018/2022). They rely on reports by Libyan nuclear scientists who seized traces of uranium ammunition in many cities and areas of their country. Libyan specialist Al-Durouqi also spoke about how “governments are afraid to approach international organisations and NATO” (op. cit.). They are therefore hoping for support from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the UN General Assembly.
♦ In the case of Libya, the IAEA became active. During an inspection (14.3.2023) it found that in southern Libya “10 barrels containing about 2.5 tonnes of natural uranium” had disappeared, i.e. were no longer under state control (dw.com/ar, 15.3.2023). Two days later they reappeared. They are remnants of Libya’s nuclear weapons programme, abandoned in 2003, containing about 1000 tonnes of uranium (dw.com/ar, 17.3.2023). The IAEA’s declarations remained “confidential”, although they pose dangers to humans and the environment.
♦ According to official information, the USA also used uranium ammunition in Syria at the end of 2015 (foreignpolicy.com, 14.2.2017). The US military thus broke its promise from the experiences of the Iraq war. Nevertheless, the deployment sites have remained secret so far, so that no countermeasures can be taken to protect the population (icbuw.eu, 17.3.2020). Syrian government authorities accuse the USA of wanting to use it to dispose of their nuclear waste. But this topic has long since become a “global problem” (albaathmedia.sy, 26.5.2020).
NATO STATES’ POSITIONS AND REACTIONS TO THE SUPPLY OF URANIUM MUNITIONS TO UKRAINE
♦ On 20.3.2020, United Kingdom Defence Secretary Annabel Goldie announced that London would supply Ukraine with uranium ammunition at the end of March 2023, along with 14 Challenger 2 tanks (militarywatchmagazine.com, 21.3.2023). Criticism of this is dismissed as “Russian disinformation“. London has been using depleted uranium shells for years. “It is a standard component and has nothing to do with nuclear weapons or capabilities.” (cnn.com, 21.3.2023)
♦ This position is supported by US research institutes. John Erath of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, for example, emphasised: “They’re [depleted uranium shells] not considered nuclear weapons. They do not have a nuclear component.” (euronews.com 5.4.2023) When asked about the long-term consequences for humans and nature, it goes on to say that every war causes extreme environmental problems, “a few depleted uranium projectile” does not make things worse. (op.cit.)
♦ One hardly hears anything about the risks of escalation from German peace research institutes, neither from the Hamburger Institut für Friedensforschung und Friedenspoltitik (ISFA), nor from the Hessischen Stiftung Friedens- und Konfliktforschung (HSFK). A pressing research question would be where will the millions of Ukrainian refugees live in the future if their homeland becomes uninhabitable due to the environmental catastrophes of war? What instruments could Germany use to prevent the worst from happening?
♦ While German foreign policy does not take any initiatives of its own, French President Emmanuel Macron travels to China to talk with head of state Xi Jinping about a solution to the Ukraine war. Despite differences on human rights issues, they agreed that diplomacy must do more to counter the threat of nuclear escalation. “All parties must do their part and […] create conditions for a ceasefire and peace talks.” (china-embassy.gov, 6.4.2023)
RUSSIA‘S REACTIONS TO THE ARMS DELIVERIES AND THEIR CURRENT POTENTIAL OF ESCALATION
♦ The UK’s announcement that it would supply uranium ammunition to Ukraine has put pressure on Russia. President Vladimir Putin reacted on the same day: He viewed the uranium ammunition as “weapons with a nuclear component” and announced countermeasures (radio1.news, 21.3.2023). Since he for his part ruled out the use of these weapons because of the consequential damage (radio1.news, 25.3.2023), it was already foreseeable that Moscow’s response would hit the NATO countries.
♦ As the first concrete countermeasure, Russia announced the stationing of tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus from July 1, 2023, which, according to official reports, had been asking for this for a long time. Moscow thus fundamentally changed its nuclear policy, because until now the nuclear weapons remained on Russian soil. Vladimir Putin justified himself by referring to the USA and its NATO allies: “We are basically doing the same thing that they have been doing for decades” (ria.ru, 25.3.2023).
♦ Russia’s reaction has not only a threatening variant through the changed nuclear doctrine. At the same time, the Kremlin, through its deputy foreign minister, announced offers for a ceasefire. After an immediate ceasefire, Russia would be open to peace negotiations. However, as before the start of the war, a solution would require, among other things, a “neutral and non-aligned status for Ukraine, a renunciation of NATO and EU membership” (twitter.com, 5.4.2023)
♦ Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyj announced through his advisor that he too was ready for talks, but only if the “counteroffensive” to retake Crimea was successful (ft.com, 6.4.2023). On the same day, social media channels published secret Pentagon documents stating that the USA wanted to support Ukraine’s spring offensive. The New York Times speaks of possible Russian disinformation (nytimes.com, 6.4.2023).
OPTIONS FOR FOR GERMANY TO ACT AGAINST A NUCLEAR ESCALATION OF THE UKRAINE WAR
♦ As a NATO member, Germany shares responsibility for a nuclear escalation in the Ukraine war. Differences in the NATO alliance are currently emerging. While France and the EU are discussing peace solutions with China, the USA and the UK are supplying uranium ammunition for the planned Ukrainian spring offensive with which Kiev wants to retake Crimea. German foreign policy must now choose between escalation and diplomatic compromises.
♦ A (nuclear) escalation of the Ukraine war cannot be in Germany’s interest from various perspectives. According to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), a total of 1.06 million refugees from Ukraine have been registered by 24.2.2023 (BAMF, 24.2.2023). According to a study, around 63% of those surveyed want to return to their homeland after the end of the war (BAMF 16.12.2023: 6). An environmentally devastated Ukraine offers them and the families they leave behind no secure future.
♦ The high proportion of 80 percent women among Ukrainian refugees (loc. cit.) also speaks for a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine conflict. This is where Germany’s feminist foreign policy can prove itself. In the new guidelines, the Federal Foreign Office promises to promote the rights of women worldwide: “We systematically include women and marginalized people in crisis prevention, stabilization and peacebuilding measures.”(auswaertiges-amt.de, 1.3.2023: 29),
♦ Last but not least, Germany must take a critical stance on Ukraine’s nuclear policy. The German government is gambling away its trust among the German population: while it is being asked to pay rising energy costs, Ukraine is expanding its business with US and Canadian energy companies. Kiev wants to become the world’s largest producer of nuclear power. In recent months, Ukraine has signed contracts with Westinghouse, among others (energoatom.com, 28.3.2023).
Protocol Additional 1977, Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977.