US steps up intelligence, surveillance after Putin nuclear threats
This means that unless Putin or his commanders want the world to know in advance, the United States may never know when Russian forces replaced conventional munitions with atomic bombs.
It’s an increasingly thorny issue as Russian forces struggle to regain momentum in Ukraine and signs mount that Putin is growing increasingly unpopular at home, especially after ordering limited military recruitment. last week.
“We are monitoring this more closely,” said a US government official with access to intelligence on Moscow’s nuclear forces and strategy who, like others interviewed for this article, was not authorized to speak publicly. .
Recent efforts include building additional U.S. and allied intelligence assets — in air, space, and cyberspace — and greater use of commercial Earth-imaging satellites to analyze Russian units on the ground. ground that might be able to achieve nuclear order, the official said. .
Another hotbed outside Ukraine is the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, where the Kremlin has installed dual-use weapon systems and hypersonic missiles.
Over the past week, flight tracking radar websites showed several US Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic surveillance planes circling the city, ostensibly collecting data. In recent years, Russia has upgraded its missile storage sites in Kaliningrad, stoking fears of a possible nuclear buildup in the territory.
Putin has made veiled references since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February that he could resort to the use of nuclear or chemical weapons to change the tide of battle or if Russia itself was threatened.
However, those threats became bolder last week when he said he was ready to “use all means at our disposal”, including “various weapons of destruction”.
“I’m not bluffing,” he added.
In response, the US warned of “catastrophic consequences”, but deliberately left open what exactly that means.
“We communicated to the Russians what the consequences would be, but we were careful how we talk about it publicly, because from our point of view, we want to posit that there will be catastrophic consequences, but not commit in a game of tit for tat rhetoric,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Sunday.
On Monday, the Kremlin said it had “sporadic” talks with the United States on nuclear issues, in what was seen as a potential effort to ease the tense situation. Russia’s deputy foreign minister also appeared to try to downplay Putin’s latest rhetoric, insisting that Russia had no intention of using nuclear weapons.
But on Tuesday, as Moscow prepared to annex some 15% of eastern Ukraine following referendums among major Russian-speaking regions, a leader issued another more explicit nuclear threat.
“Let’s imagine that Russia is forced to use the most formidable weapon against the Ukrainian regime which has committed a large-scale act of aggression dangerous for the very existence of our state,” said Dmitry Medvedev, Vice President of the Russian Security Council. in an article on Telegram, Reuters reported.
“I think NATO would not intervene directly in the conflict, even in this scenario,” he added. “Demagogues across the ocean and in Europe are not going to die in a nuclear apocalypse.”
A US Strategic Command spokesman said the group was “always on guard and ready to respond if necessary”.
“We haven’t seen any evidence yet that Russia will use nuclear weapons,” said Lt. Cmdr. Joshua Kelsey. “We take these threats very seriously, but we have seen no reason to adjust our own nuclear posture at this time.”
Yet gaining in-depth knowledge of any impending Russian attack would by definition be a difficult task. Some two dozen Russian weapons systems can deliver both conventional explosives and low-yield nuclear warheads, the top US official said.
And public estimates indicate that Russia has more than 1,900 tactical nuclear warheads, also known as non-strategic nuclear weapons.
“It’s everything from cruise missiles and nuclear torpedoes to gravity bombs and intermediate-range ballistic missiles,” the official said. “All sorts of things.”
Intelligence agencies, the official said, are confident that Russia will not risk an all-out nuclear war by launching a massive attack on Ukraine or NATO countries.
“They will never use a strategic nuclear weapon,” the government official said. “They will never launch an ICBM or put a [Tu-95] bomber loaded with megaton-class warheads. What they’re going to do is use a close-range weapon. They have what we call micro-nuclear warheads, with tens to hundreds of tons of explosive yield.
By comparison, the explosive yields of the nuclear bombs the United States dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II were in the range of 15 to 20 kilotons, or 15,000 to 20 000 tons.
“It’s still a big bomb,” the official said, referring to micro-nuclears, but pointed out that “you can focus on very small tactical targets. … You don’t have a lot of radiation.
Russia is also known to have low-yield atomic weapons for battlefield use that are much more powerful, including in the kiloton range, which are on par with or exceed the bombs dropped on Japan.
Senior intelligence officials have intensified their warnings in recent months of Russia’s growing reliance on tactical nuclear weapons in its military strategy.
Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, told Congress in February that Russia is “expanding and modernizing its large, diverse and modern set of non-strategic systems, capable of carrying nuclear or conventional warheads.”
“Moscow,” she added, “believes such systems provide options for deterring adversaries, controlling the escalation of potential hostilities, and countering U.S. and allied troops near its border.”
US military commanders and intelligence experts are hoping that the first indication that Russia has decided to go nuclear in Ukraine will not be a mushroom cloud.
“The administration spent an awful lot of time during this whole process of the war in Ukraine talking about their understanding of what Russia was planning and then what Russia was going to do once the war started,” a former senior official said. of the National Security Council. who still advises the US strategic command.
The person said the administration’s comments indicate a reliance on a mix of intelligence-gathering tools, ranging from human spies to eavesdropping techniques to discern whether such an order had been given or which particular Russian units suspected. to have nuclear weapons training could perform it. .
“This suggests certain accesses – HUMINT, SIGINT and imagery – that are good enough to penetrate the Russian system,” the person said, using the shorthand for human and signals intelligence.
But what makes this extremely difficult is that Russia has 23 different dual-use weapon systems, many of which have been used in Ukraine.
“If the Russians have it in their arsenal as a conventional weapon, you can be pretty safe assuming it has a nuclear warhead to go with it,” the person said. “Almost all the weapons the Russians have are nuclear capable. If it’s an artillery system, if it’s an air defense system, if it’s a torpedo, if it’s a cruise missile, it could have a nuclear weapon with it.
The first US official cited as an example the Iskander short-range ballistic missile system, which can fire both conventional and nuclear warheads.
Yet there could be subtle indications that the nuclear option has been set in motion, such as particular units with the means to deliver a small nuclear device behaving out of the ordinary, such as withdrawing some forces or equipment but no ‘others.
“We might think, ‘huh this is a bit different from the way they normally operate. They send this one unit, but push back all the others. It’s really different. It’s strange,'” the government official described a possible scenario.
Others think the Putin regime might want to telegraph its intentions in hopes of gaining diplomatic leverage.
“I think the Russians, if they’re preparing to do that, would try to report it,” said Franklin Miller, a veteran former Pentagon official and chief nuclear policy officer for the George W. Bush. “They arranged, ostentatiously, for the nuclear munitions to come out of the special storage sites. They would give us a clue that they are moving ammunition from central storage sites to firing units. And then give us more time to think about it and worry about it.
Miller, who is now a consultant at The Scowcroft Group, added that “you could, in theory, see them loading a weapon onto an aircraft or some special activity around a medium-range missile launcher.” However, he thinks “it’s less likely”.
Another scenario could involve only “rare minutes” of notice, Miller said. “There would be communication traffic letting us know something was going to happen with a special trick.”
The former senior NSC official also agreed that “they may want us to see some of these things”.
But the first US official isn’t counting on much notice. “For these smaller nukes, we’re probably not going to find out.”
Paul McLeary contributed to this report.