U.S. intelligence officials said they saw no indication that Russian President Vladimir Putin was prepared to deploy so-called battlefield nuclear weapons, but several versions of Russian military doctrine published since 2000 have called for using nuclear weapons against conventional threats in the early stages of a regional war in order to deal with conventional threats against the Russian homeland. Even with Ukraine’s war going much worse for Russia than expected, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chances of using a nuclear weapon are slimmer than not, Robert Gates, the former U.S. secretary of defense and director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said on Sunday.
As the U.S. continues to deploy ever-more-sophisticated weapons designed to help Ukraine obliterate outnumbered Russian forces, American officials told NBC News that the Biden administration has been thinking in unthinkable terms for months about what Russian President Vladimir Putin could do. In our Wargame scenarios, imagine that Russia would use an atomic bomb on Ukraine. Two American officials, citing American intelligence assessments, said that some in Putin’s inner circle had encouraged him to experiment with nuclear weapons as a show of strength in moments when his regular forces were struggling in Ukraine.
If Russian President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle are considering using one or two tactical nuclear weapons against targets within Ukraine, the fact that American soldiers would not be killed in an attack may remove another deterrent. Perry suggests the weakness of Russian conventional forces relative to American forces and Russia’s comparative advantages in tactical weapons are factors that might push Putin toward conducting a nuclear attack on Ukraine. The absence of American troops in Ukraine may make an escalation more attractive for Russian leaders. Speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation with Margaret Brennan, Gates said Russian tactical weapons use would trigger a forceful Western response, including establishing a no-fly zone over Ukrainian skies.
Others said Biden would need to use some conventional forces, perhaps attacking Russian troops in Ukraine or Russian military units that deployed alleged tactical nuclear weapons, an option that is likely to be deeply consequential as Russian military leaders are likely to be killed. Gates, who served as secretary of defense under Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic President Barack Obama from 2006-11, said that Biden’s administration should have begun arming Ukraine months before the Russian’s clash. To its credit, Biden’s administration was at least somewhat cognizant of the risks of escalation, which is part of why the president said early on that he would not put American troops into the fight in Ukraine.
If the United States finds tactical weapons being removed from Russian-controlled areas, Gottemoeller believes that President Biden’s administration should give Russia the strongest possible warning via back channels, then disclose publicly about the movements of those weapons, using the same public-sharing tactics that appear to have stopped Russian false-flag operations involving chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine. Senator Jack Reed, the Rhode Island Democrat who heads the Armed Services Committee, said on Wednesday that there would be consequences if Mr. Putin used any weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological or nuclear, even if the weapons used were limited to Ukraine.
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