Russian Military Leaders Reportedly Discussed When And How Moscow Would Use Nuclear Weapons In Ukraine

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Robert Hart   Forbes U.S. Staff

Russian Military Leaders Reportedly Discussed When And How Moscow Would Use Nuclear Weapons In Ukraine


Russian military leaders have discussed how and when Moscow might deploy nuclear weapons in Ukraine, according to U.S. intelligence reported by the New York Times on Wednesday, adding to mounting fears of how far Russian President Vladimir Putin will go in order to prop up his flagging invasion in the face of heavy and humiliating losses.

Key Facts

Senior Russian military leaders have recently discussed the circumstances where Moscow might use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine and how it might do so, according to the Times, citing multiple senior American officials.

Putin, who has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine and is the sole decision-maker in charge of Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal, did not contribute to the conversations, the Times reported.

Crucial Quote

The Times said John F. Kirby, a National Security Council official, declined to comment on “the particulars” of its reporting, though he said the U.S. has been “clear from the outset that Russia’s comments about the potential use of nuclear weapons are deeply concerning” and that officials are taking them seriously. “We continue to monitor this as best we can, and we see no indications that Russia is making preparations for such use.”

News Peg

A nuclear specter has hovered over the conflict in Ukraine from the very beginning and Moscow has shown little respect for the longstanding international norms that govern nuclear power. Within days of the invasion, Russian troops seized Chernobyl, the highly-contaminated site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, and did not flinch in the face of international outrage when fighting near or seizing control of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, including Europe’s largest nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia. Putin and other officials have repeatedly threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons—short-range devices designed for use on the battlefield—to defend its interests, an unprecedented escalation condemned by leaders around the world. In recent weeks, Moscow has baselessly claimed Kyiv is planning to use a “dirty bomb” against its troops. A dirty bomb is a conventional explosive bomb laced with radioactive materials, which are spread during the explosion. Ukraine has denied the allegations, calling them a distraction and a blatant attempt for Russia to justify its own escalation and potential use of nuclear weapons. The UN’s nuclear watchdog said it had launched an independent investigation into Russia’s claims this week and previous inspections of Ukrainian facilities have not revealed any undeclared nuclear materials.

Despite Putin’s absence, U.S. officials reportedly balked at the discussions as a sign Moscow’s nuclear rhetoric could be more than just empty threats, as well as illustrating mounting frustration among Russia’s military elite over its failures in Ukraine.

It is not clear precisely when the conversations took place—the Times said the intelligence was circulated inside the U.S. government in mid-October—and officials would not provide the Times with details on when the military leaders believed Moscow would seriously consider a nuclear strike.

Even in light of the Russian conversations, U.S. officials told the Times they have still not seen any evidence Moscow is preparing to launch a nuclear strike.

What We Don't Know

It’s not clear whether Putin would resort to ordering a nuclear strike or under what circumstances, though many experts believe a strike could be more likely as pressure on the Russian leader grows and battlefield losses mount. A nuclear strike would mark a huge escalation in hostilities and would be the only use of a nuclear weapon in conflict since the two used by the U.S. in Japan in World War Two. It could change the calculus of modern warfare and would be certain to provoke global outrage. It is unclear how military powers like the U.S. and NATO would respond and officials have been consciously vague over their plans. NATO leaders have warned Moscow they face “severe consequences” if using nuclear weapons in Ukraine and President Joe Biden has cautioned that even a limited strike could rapidly escalate into a world-ending event.

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Robert Hart   Forbes U.S. Staff

I am a London-based reporter for Forbes covering breaking news. Previously, I have worked as a reporter for a specialist legal publication covering big data and as a freelance journalist and policy analyst covering science, tech and health. I have a master’s degree in Biological Natural Sciences and a master’s degree in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge.