By Paul Kirby
Senior Russian military leaders discussed last month how and when they might use nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine, two US officials have told CBS News.
Vladimir Putin was not involved in the talks, they told the BBC’s US partner.
The White House said it had grown “increasingly concerned” about the potential use of nuclear weapons over the last few months.
But it stressed the US saw no sign of Russia preparing for such use.
That chimes with earlier Western intelligence assessments that Moscow has not been moving its nuclear weapons.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the West of “deliberately pumping up the topic”, although the timing of the high-level Russian military discussions in mid-October is significant.
By late September President Putin had escalated his nuclear and anti-Western rhetoric, talking about using all means at his disposal to protect Russia and the occupied Ukrainian lands he had annexed.
“This is not a bluff,” he said, accusing the West of unleashing nuclear blackmail and boasting of Russian weapons that were more modern than any in Nato’s armoury.
Responding to US media reports that Russia had discussed using nuclear weapons, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said: “We have grown increasingly concerned about the potential as these months have gone on.”
As Russia’s fortunes on the battlefield have waned, its nuclear threats appear to have increased.
Moscow has accused Ukraine of preparing a “dirty bomb”, laced with radioactive material, although Ukraine and the West say Russia is merely trying to create a pretext to blame Kyiv if such a device is used.
Russia’s Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, made a point of contacting his counterparts in the US, Turkey and France to talk about the alleged Ukrainian plot. However, when Russia’s defence ministry produced photos to illustrate its findings, the government of Slovenia quickly pointed out that the images had been borrowed from its Radioactive Waste Management Agency and showed smoke detectors dating back to 2010.
In recent weeks, Russia’s nuclear doctrine has come under close scrutiny on the circumstances in which it could use nuclear arms, in particular a “tactical” weapon that might be unleashed on the battlefield in Ukraine.
A tactical nuclear weapon is for use in combat, as opposed to the larger “strategic” weapons which are designed to cause massive destruction.
When Russia held routine nuclear exercises last week, it was under the scenario that it was retaliating to an enemy’s nuclear attack with a larger-scale strategic weapon. Mr Putin was adamant that Russia’s nuclear doctrine only allowed the defensive use of nuclear arms.
But on Tuesday the deputy head of Russia’s security council, Dmitry Medvedev, highlighted another element of Russia’s doctrine – nuclear use in the event of an existential threat to the state. He pointed out that Ukraine’s war aims were to recover all the territories that previously belonged to it, and that in itself was an existential threat.
Even though Mr. Medvedev may not always have the president’s ear, his remarks do reflect Mr. Putin’s view that large portions of southern and eastern Ukraine have become Russian territory as a result of Russia’s formal annexation of those regions, even though that view is not shared by the rest of the world.
Additionally, the Russian foreign ministry reaffirmed that Moscow had the right to use nuclear weapons in response to “a conventional weapon-based aggression when the very existence of the state is in danger” in a statement on Wednesday.
If Russia deployed a tactical nuclear weapon on the Ukrainian battlefield, there would be “severe consequences,” according to UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace. He promised the MPs he wouldn’t guess what they might be.
The head of the SVR foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin, responded to a question from the BBC last week asking him to categorically deny that Russia would use nuclear weapons in Ukraine by saying that he was very concerned about the rhetoric coming from the West and that Ukraine’s leadership was attempting to acquire nuclear weapons.