Russian military officials have discussed how and under what circumstances Russia might use tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine, multiple US intelligence sources told CNN.
Several readers told CNN that the assessment, prepared by the National Intelligence Council, is not a high-trust product and is analysis, not raw data. For this reason, some officials believe that the statements reflected in the document may be out of context, and do not indicate that Russia is ready to use nuclear weapons.
The U.S. has yet to see any signs that Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to take serious action to use one, the officials said.
But others who have seen the document have reacted with concern because it provides a rare window into the conversations of top Russian generals in the administration and shows frustration over Russia’s losses on the battlefield in Ukraine. That frustration could turn to despair, some officials fear. Russia’s annexation of eastern Ukraine earlier this year also raises questions about Russia’s willingness to take more extreme measures to protect that territory.
The U.S. is also monitoring Russian actions as Ukrainian forces attempt to retaliate against Russian forces around the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson. In recent weeks, Russian officials have ordered an evacuation of the city, and the United States has worried that it could be the kind of trigger that would lead Putin to tactical nukes if Ukraine expels the Russians in a humiliating defeat. Although the officials emphasized that Kerson was not the sole focus of the product, it was one of the factors considered in the intelligence assessment.
The New York Times first reported on the data review. But the quality of the intelligence and how to interpret the internal divisions has not been previously defined.
Tactical nuclear weapons are sometimes described as “small nukes” because they are typically small nuclear warheads intended for limited strike use on the battlefield. They have an explosive yield of 10 to 100 kilotons of dynamite, while “strategic” nuclear weapons have an explosive yield of 500 to 800 kilotons and are designed to destroy entire cities. But tactical nuclear weapons can be unimaginably deadly: the bombs dropped on Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 had the equivalent of 15 to 21 kilotons, respectively.
CNN previously reported that U.S. officials believe the likelihood of Putin using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine is perhaps the highest since Russia invaded in February — but still unlikely.
Any use of nuclear weapons would cause international outrage and put pressure on the US and NATO to retaliate.
“I have no comment on the details of this report,” National Security Council official John Kirby said in a statement. “From the beginning, Russia’s comments regarding the use of nuclear weapons are very serious and we take it very seriously. We will continue to monitor this as best we can, and see no indication that Russia is preparing for such a service.
The assessment is not a product of raw data and the rationale for it is not robust, sources told CNN. But the inside joke on how to interpret the assessment reveals the broader difficulty America faces in deciding with confidence whether Putin will go so far as to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Officials stress that only Putin can know what’s in his head.
Concerns were heightened when Putin said in a speech in September that “when there is a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and when there is a danger to protect Russia and our people, we will definitely use all the tools.” This is not an eclipse.”
And last week, Russian officials began accusing Ukraine of preparing to use a “dirty bomb” — a charge the United States worries is an excuse for Russia to use one itself.
Foreign Secretary Anthony Blinken said: “This particular allegation is of some concern because Russia has a record of projection, that is, of accusing others of doing something they themselves have done or intend to do.” Bloomberg event last week. Blinken announced that he had spoken directly and openly with the Russians about whether the US would use nuclear weapons.