Senior Russian military leaders recently discussed the possibility of using a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, raising concerns in Washington and the West, the New York Times reported Wednesday, citing multiple US officials.
The unnamed sources would not reveal the scenarios that Russian military discussed but said that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has sole authority over use of such a weapon, was not involved in the conversations. However, the fact that such discussions were even held by the generals concerned the Biden administration.
Nonetheless, US officials say there is no indication that Russia is preparing to make a tactical nuclear strike, and is not moving such weapons into place.
Use of such a weapon would require some preparation including alerting Russian commanders on the ground and ensuring that Russian forces are not at risk from the blast or radioactive fallout. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, US intelligence agencies have been keeping an eye out for signs of prepatory measures, such as undeclared exercises or strategic forces going on alert, the report said.
However, US officials admit that detection methods are not infallible and there is no certainty that Washington would get much advance warning before a nuclear strike, which contributed to the concerns over the Russian generals’ discussions. US officials are worried there may be further talks on the matter among senior leaders, in particular if Ukraine succeeds in routing Moscow’s forces in the south of the country.
Intelligence about the conversations was passed around the US government in mid-October, according to the report. At the time, Russia made the baseless claim that Ukraine was planning to use a so-called dirty bomb — a conventional weapon that has been infused with radioactive material — against Moscow’s invasion forces. Intense diplomatic activity by Western officials at the time included US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaking twice with Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, efforts that some of the cited officials said helped ease tensions.
Last Thursday, Putin declared in a speech that he sees “no need” to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine and that there was “no point in that, neither political, nor military.”
Also last week, Russia held an annual military exercise to test the capabilities of missiles able to deliver nuclear weapons. US officials at the time said they did not believe the maneuvers, which were monitored by Putin, were cover for a real deployment.
Other than vowing a significant response, Washington has not said exactly how it would react to a Russian tactical nuclear strike in Ukraine, but US President Joe Biden has indicated it would not involve use of America’s own nuclear arsenal.
The Pentagon estimates that Russia has up to 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons. No such weapon has been used in more than 75 years.
John Kirby, spokesperson for the National Security Council, would not comment to the NY Times on “the particulars of this reporting.”
“We’ve been clear from the outset that Russia’s comments about the potential use of nuclear weapons are deeply concerning, and we take them seriously,” Kirby said. “We continue to monitor this as best we can, and we see no indications that Russia is making preparations for such use.”
CIA director William Burns has in the past warned that “potential desperation” by Putin for a victory in Ukraine could drive him to use a tactical nuclear weapon.
Russia’s invasion of its neighbor encountered stiff resistance from Ukraine, which has been backed by the West, including with supplies of weapons. A September counteroffensive by Ukraine has made steady gains, taking back territory in the northeast and south that Russia had captured earlier in the conflict. Putin meanwhile has upped the stakes, calling for a mobilization of Russian reserves, becoming directly involved in war planning, and ordering strikes to destroy the Ukrainian electric and power grid.