US officials divided over new intelligence suggesting Russian military discussed scenarios for using nuclear weapons


Russian military officials discussed how and under what conditions Russia would use a tactical nuke on the battlefield in Ukraine, according to a US intelligence assessment described to CNN by multiple sources who have read it.

The assessment, written by the National Intelligence Council, is not a high-trust product and is not raw intelligence but rather analysis, several people who have read it told CNN. For this reason, some officials believe the conversations reflected in the document may have been taken out of context and do not necessarily indicate that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon.

The United States has yet to see signs that the Russian president Vladimir Poutine decided to take the drastic step of using one, officials said, and Putin does not appear to have been involved in the discussions described in the NIC product.

But others in the administration who viewed the document reacted with concern, as it offers a rare window into conversations among Russian generals and reveals their growing frustration over Russia’s battlefield losses in Ukraine. That frustration could turn into desperation, some officials fear. There are also questions as to whether Russia’s self-declared annexation of eastern Ukraine earlier this year means that Russia is ready to take more extreme measures to protect this territory.

US also monitoring Russian actions around southern Ukraine Kherson city, that Ukrainian forces are trying to recapture from Russian forces in a counter-offensive. In recent weeks, Russian officials have ordered the city evacuated, and the United States fears that if Ukraine hunts the Russians in a humiliating defeat, it could be the kind of trigger that would lead Putin to resort to arms. nuclear tactics. This is among the scenarios considered by the intelligence assessment, although officials stressed that Kherson is not the only target of the product.

The New York Times reported for the first time on intelligence assessment. But internal divisions over the quality of the intelligence and how to interpret it have gone unreported before.

Tactical nuclear weapons are sometimes described as “small nukes”, as they are usually smaller nuclear warheads that are intended for use in a limited strike on a battlefield. They have explosive yields of 10 to 100 kilotons of dynamite, while “strategic” nuclear weapons have explosive yields of 500 to 800 kilotons and are designed to destroy entire cities. But tactical nuclear weapons can still be incredibly deadly: the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945 were worth around 15 to 21 kilotons respectively.

CNN has already reported that US officials believe the likelihood of Putin using a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine may be the highest since the invasion of Russia in February – but still not likely.

Any use of nuclear weapons would spark international outrage and pressure the United States and NATO to retaliate.

“I have no comment on the details of this reporting,” National Security Council official John Kirby said in a statement. “We have been clear from the outset that Russia’s comments about the potential use of nuclear weapons are deeply concerning, and we take them seriously. We continue to monitor this as best we can, and see no indication that Russia is preparing for such use. »

The Russian Defense Ministry wrote in a statement posted on its website on Wednesday that its nuclear doctrine will only allow the use of atomic weapons in an inherently defensive manner and that the strict guidelines will “pursue defensive purposes only.” “. He added that Russia would “hypothetically resort to nuclear weapons only in response to aggression involving the use of weapons of mass destruction or aggression with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the ‘State is in danger’.

The assessment is not a raw intelligence product and its supply is not robust, sources told CNN. But internal maneuvering over how to interpret the assessment reflects the broader US difficulty in confidently determining whether Putin will actually go so far as to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. Only Putin can know what’s on his mind, officials said.

Concerns intensified after Putin warned in a speech in September: “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly use all weapon systems at our disposal. . It’s not a bluff. »

And last week, Russian officials began to claim that Ukraine was preparing to use a “dirty bomb“- an allegation the United States was concerned about was just a pretext for Russia to use one itself.

“The reason we are concerned about this particular allegation is that Russia has a history of projection, that is, of accusing others of doing something that they themselves have done or plan to do,” he said. said the Secretary of State. Antony Blinken said at a Bloomberg event last week. Blinken noted that the United States had “communicated directly and very clearly to the Russians, President Putin about the consequences” if he used a nuclear weapon.

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