Last month, Russian commanders discussed how and when they could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, reportedly dividing U.S. officials.
The discussions, which were held against the backdrop of significant battlefield setbacks for the Russian military over the summer, were confirmed to CBS News by two military officials. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the report as “purposeful pumping” of nuclear rhetoric. "We have not the slightest intention to take part in this pumping, and consider it very, very irresponsible," he told reporters.
The discussions, first reported by the New York Times, sparked debate among U.S. officials. Some officials believe a National Intelligence Council assessment describing the deliberations in Moscow may have taken the conversations out of context and that the discussions do “not necessarily indicate that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon,” according to CNN. Despite President Joe Biden’s earlier warnings of nuclear “Armageddon” over Ukraine, White House officials have maintained there are no concrete signs that the Kremlin is making preparations to use nuclear weapons. Still, others in the Biden administration have expressed concerns that the frustration conveyed in purported discussions among Russian officials could turn into desperation, the CNN report maintains. U.S. officials have further voiced concerns that a Russian rout in the occupied southern regional capital of Kherson, which is currently being besieged by Ukrainian forces, could lower the Kremlin’s threshold for nuclear escalation.
Officials say Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has recently downplayed the possibility of ordering a nuclear strike, was not involved in the talks. Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev previously said Russia is within its rights to use strategic nuclear weapons to defend its newly-annexed territories in Ukraine. Moreover, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has called on the Kremlin to sanction a low-yield nuclear strike on Ukrainian territory.
"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," White House spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday. "We continue to monitor this as best we can, and we see no indications that Russia is making preparations for such use."
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.