Ride into the danger zone
Senior Russian military leaders recently had discussions on when and how the Kremlin might use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, The New York Times reported early Wednesday, citing multiple senior U.S. officials. Russian President Vladimir Putin, the only one in Russia who could order a nuclear attack, was not part of the discussions.
The intelligence about the discussions, which circulated within the U.S. government in mid-October, did not change the prevailing assessment that Russia is not taking steps to actually use a tactical nuke or "dirty bomb" in Ukraine, the Times reports. The fact that these senior Russian officials were even discussing the option, however, "alarmed the Biden administration because it showed how frustrated Russian generals were about their failures on the ground" and suggests "Putin's veiled threats to use nuclear weapons might not just be words."
A tactical nuke is a relatively low-yield nuclear weapon, and a dirty bomb is a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material — both would spread radiation and terror around Ukraine.
"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," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told the Times. "We continue to monitor this as best we can, and we see no indications that Russia is making preparations for such use."
Putin recently walked back his suggestion that Russia might use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, saying "there is no point in that, neither political nor military." The Pentagon has said it has plenty of ways of responding if Russia did cross that line, and the general assumption is the response would involving conventional, non-nuclear attacks on Russian targets in Ukraine. "Military analysts believe that in a head-to-head matchup of conventional forces, NATO far and away has the advantage," The Washington Post reports.
"That's why he's been making these nuclear threats all along anyway; he's been trying to deter NATO from getting involved conventionally," Heather Williams at the Center for Strategic and International Studies tells the Post. She said the bigger deterrent, though, is the "huge risk" that "any nuclear use" would cost Putin the support of China and India, Russia's last remaining powerful allies.