German president arrives in Ukraine as tensions rise

The German president arrived in Kyiv on Tuesday for his first visit to Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion, a trip that comes amid unsubstantiated warnings from Moscow of a ‘dirty bomb’ attack as the conflict between in its ninth month.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after his arrival that “it was important for me in this phase of air attacks with drones, cruise missiles and rockets to send a signal of solidarity to Ukrainians”, reported the German press agency dpa.

Steinmeier’s spokesperson, Cerstin Gammelin, posted a photo of him in Kyiv on Tuesday. “Our solidarity is unbroken, and it will remain so,” she tweeted.

The German president, whose post is largely ceremonial, visited Ukraine on his third attempt.

In April, he planned to visit the country with his Polish and Baltic counterparts, but said his presence “apparently … was not wanted in Kyiv”. Steinmeier has come under fire in Ukraine for allegedly getting close to Russia when he was Germany’s foreign minister.

Last week, a planned trip was postponed for security reasons.

Steinmeier’s visit comes as Ukrainians brace for less electricity this winter following a sustained Russian barrage on their infrastructure in recent weeks. Citizens of the southern city of Mykolaiv lined up for water and essential supplies on Tuesday as Ukrainian forces advanced towards the nearby Russian-occupied city of Kherson.

Ukrainian authorities have tried to allay public fears over Russia’s use of Iranian drones to strike the country’s infrastructure, claiming growing success Monday in shooting them down.

Ukrainian forces shot down more than two-thirds of some 330 Shahed drones that Russia fired on Saturday, Ukraine’s intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said Monday. Budanov said the Russian military has ordered around 1,700 drones of various types and is deploying a second batch of around 300 Shaheds.

Although Russia and Iran deny that the Iranian-made drones were used, the distinctive triangle-shaped Shahed-136s have rained down on civilians in Kyiv and elsewhere.

The UK MoD said Russia would likely use large numbers of drones to try to penetrate Ukraine’s “increasingly effective air defences” – to replace Russian-made long-range precision weapons “which are becoming increasingly rare”.

The assessment came on top of a stern warning from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to his British, French, Turkish and American counterparts over the weekend that Ukrainian forces were planning a “provocation” involving a radioactive device – a so-called dirty bomb. Britain, France and the United States dismissed this claim as “manifestly false”.

A dirty bomb uses explosives to disperse radioactive waste in an attempt to spread terror. Such weapons lack the devastating destruction of a nuclear explosion, but could expose large areas to radioactive contamination.

Russian authorities on Monday doubled Shoigu’s warning.

Lt. Gen. Igor Kirillov, head of the Russian military’s radiation, chemical and biological protection forces, said Russian military assets were very ready to deal with possible radioactive contamination. He told reporters that a dirty bomb explosion could contaminate thousands of square kilometers (miles).

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed that “this is not an unfounded suspicion, we have serious reasons to believe that such things could be planned”.

Ukraine dismissed Moscow’s claims as an attempt to distract from its own plans to detonate a dirty bomb. German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht on Monday called “outrageous” the Russian claim that Ukraine could use a dirty bomb.

The White House again stressed on Monday that the Russian allegations were false.

“That’s just not true. We know that is not true,” said John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council. “In the past, Russians have on occasion blamed others for things they intended to do.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hinted that Moscow was itself preparing the ground for the deployment of a radioactive device on Ukrainian soil. He also urged citizens to save their electricity consumption as around 30 percent of the country’s power plants have been destroyed or severely damaged in recent weeks.

“Now is definitely not the time for window displays and illuminated signs,” he said.

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Christi C. Elwood