US intelligence is saying that Russia will not start a nuclear war soon.
After a year of protracted warfare in Ukraine, US intelligence and policy analysts are increasingly confident that they have identified President Vladimir Putin’s boundaries concerning nuclear weapons. Although worries remain about Russia’s possible usage of nukes, these fears have eased somewhat recently as diplomatic relations move back towards more level ground.
According to a New York Times report, US officials cite several factors explaining why: a more stable battlefield, China’s warnings against using nuclear weapons, improved communications between Moscow and Washington, and an expanded role for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Ukraine have all contributed to some degree of stability.
The report also cited a senior US official saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have realized that the threats he once saw as leverage were now backfiring.
Putin’s Nuclear Threats: Rhetoric or the Real Deal?
Last February, the Russian president spoke with his defense officials in a televised meeting, signaling a directive that met with international condemnation from Western powers.
“Top officials in leading NATO countries have allowed themselves to make aggressive comments about our country. Therefore I hereby order the Minister of Defense and the chief of the General Staff to place the Russian Army Deterrence Force on combat alert,” Putin said in a televised meeting with top Russian defense officials on Sunday.
However, White House press secretary (at the time) Jen Psaki belittled Putin’s decision to place Russia’s deterrence forces, including nuclear weapons, on high alert, saying that the official order is just part of a larger picture of unprovoked escalation and “manufactured threats” from the Kremlin.
In an interview with ABC on “This Week” news program with host George Stephanopoulos, Psaki said that the Russian leader’s announcements are part of “a pattern that we’ve seen from President Putin through the course of this conflict, which is manufacturing threats that don’t exist in order to justify further aggression. The global community and the American people should look at it through that prism.”
In the 1990s, Russia assumed nuclear arms control from other former Soviet republics. This was part of its “deterrence” strategy.
Decoding Russia’s Nuclear War Threats
The prospect of nuclear escalation continues to influence US government decisions about what advanced weapons to provide Ukraine. Yet, after more than a year into the conflict, US policymakers and intelligence analysts are more confident that they understand at least some of Mr. Putin’s red lines — and what types of support for Ukraine will elicit condemnation versus what could lead to something more dangerous.
The New York Times reported that inside the Biden administration, officials warn that Russia’s nuclear escalation threats can continue. The report also added that the next time the Kremlin wants to remind the West of its arsenal’s power, it could move a nuclear weapon it knows can be observed by the US. According to the report, the Pentagon is continuing to simulate what might happen if Putin positions tactical weapons as a reminder that he can back up his conventional forces.
However, in the absence of other intelligence, overwrought threats are causing little stir. Dmitri Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council and former Russian President from 2008 to 2012, issued a nuclear threat last January, met mostly with shrugs by US intelligence. In a Telegram post, Medvedev echoed his Russian ally’s threats of an impending nuclear war, saying that Russia’s defeat is bound to trigger this war.
“Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends. The defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war may trigger a nuclear war.“
Analysts Zero In On Putin’s Earlier “Mellow Stance”
Analysts point out Putin’s earlier mellowed stance last December, saying that his Putin regime has not gone “mad.” The Russian strongman stressed that the threat of nuclear war is “growing” and that it is “a sin to hide it.” He also rejected criticism from Western powers, which earlier taunted that his nuclear war rhetorics amounted to “saber-rattling,” countering that these were “not a factor provoking an escalation of conflicts, but a factor of deterrence.”
Earlier reports quoted ex-CIA Director William Burns that Putin’s “purpose of the saber-rattling is to intimidate us, as well as our European allies and the Ukrainians themselves,” he explained. “So I believe we must maintain a level head in carefully weighing those threats while not being intimidated by them.”
The Kremlin’s ability to deploy nuclear weapons has been scrutinized due to Russian military failures during the 14-month-long Ukraine war.
“We haven’t gone mad. We are fully aware of what nuclear weapons are. We have (the nuclear weapons), and they are more advanced and state-of-the-art than what any other nuclear power has,” Putin declared. “We’re not going to run around the world brandishing this weapon like a razor …But we have the means to respond, and it won’t stop with armor. This must be understood by everyone.”
In his televised remarks, Putin did not address Russia’s battlefield setbacks or attempts to consolidate control over the seized regions. Still, he did acknowledge problems with supplies, treatment of wounded soldiers, and limited desertions. However, he admitted that his “special military operation” in Ukraine is taking longer than expected but has captured new territory.
“Of course, it could be a lengthy process,” Putin said of the Ukrainian war, which began on February 24 with Russia’s invasion and has displaced millions, killed and injured tens of thousands.
The Russian leader is not showing signs of relenting, despite the extensive Ukraine war, vowing to “consistently fight for our interests” and “protect ourselves using all means available.” Putin insisted on his earlier claims that Russia would continue to send troops with the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, contending that the West had responded with “only spit in the face” on Russia’s security demands for years.
Improved Dialogue With Moscow On Nuclear Arms
US officials credit improved dialogue with Moscow, at least on nuclear issues. Amid Russia’s battlefield failures, US intelligence concluded that Russian military officials discussed scenarios in which a tactical nuclear weapon could be used. Two phone calls between Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, concerned Washington because Mr. Shoigu had expressed concern about Ukraine’s potential use of a dirty bomb.
While these claims were touted as “propaganda,” some US officials said Russian officials appeared to believe their disinformation. Getting IAEA inspectors into Ukraine — and, in early November, when the agency found no evidence of a dirty bomb — helped ease tensions.
In Turkey, Burns also met with his counterpart, Sergei Naryshkin, the director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, to warn Russia about its nuclear threats. The purpose of the trip, Burns earlier said, was “to make very clear the serious consequences of any use of tactical nuclear weapons.” The meeting, officials said, opened up a new line of communication with Russian leadership.
Administration officials say they are trying to distinguish between Mr. Putin’s threats and his actual opportunities to use nuclear weapons in hopes of cutting those off. So far, they have no evidence that he is moving nuclear weapons toward the battlefield. However, they note that they might not see such movement with some of his tactical weapons — small battlefield arms, including some that can fit into an artillery shell.
US officials observe that if Mr. Putin wants to raise the level of alarm, he will make a public show of transferring weapons or make sure Western allies pick up chatter among the units that control those weapons.
“We don’t have any indication that Mr. Putin has any intention to use weapons of mass destruction — let alone nuclear weapons, tactical or otherwise,” John Kirby, a White House spokesman, said at a news briefing last January. “We monitor as best we can and believe our strategic deterrent posture is appropriate. But we have seen no indication that that’s in the offing.”
US officials have repeatedly stated publicly that Russia may use a nuclear weapon if Putin’s grip on power is threatened, if Moscow believes NATO will directly enter the Ukraine war, or if the Russian army faces a sudden, catastrophic defeat. Throughout the Ukraine conflict, US officials have developed a more refined, if imperfect, sense of what actions could escalate the conflict. Weapons sent to the country, even those with increasingly advanced capabilities, have elicited no response from Russia, owing to Ukraine’s use of them within its borders.
However, the ever-changing battlefield dynamics may cause Russia to reconsider using nuclear weapons.
China’s Role In The Ukraine-Russia Battlefield
The US and its allies argue that warning Moscow against a nuclear weapon requires appealing to Russia’s partners. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, needs Putin’s support.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s November visit to Beijing, according to analysts, was a German diplomatic push backed by the US, according to several US officials.
In his public statement on his Beijing visit, Scholz said that his visit to Beijing was justified by his joint statement with Mr. Xi on the use of nuclear weapons.
“Because the Chinese government, the president, and I were able to declare that no nuclear weapons should be used in this war, that alone made the whole trip worthwhile,” Scholz said.
A Newsweek report observed that Biden drew unusually harsh words from Beijing last February after the American president stated that his Chinese counterpart had “enormous problems” at home.
As a result of personal warnings to Xi about the likely economic consequences, China was “not all in” with Russia’s war in Ukraine, showing the Asian country’s “neutrality” on the Russian invasion.
In an interview with Newsweek, Center for a New American Security Senior Fellow Jacob Stokes spoke about Beijing’s concerns about Russia’s devastating defeat.
“Beijing worries about a total defeat of Moscow, which would leave China without its most powerful and committed partner in global affairs,” Stokes said. “Total defeat could also threaten Vladimir Putin’s rule. And Xi Jinping cannot be certain that the next Russian leader would prioritize relations with China to the degree Putin has. At the same time, China wants to avoid becoming the target of additional sanctions and technology controls from democratic countries for its support to Russia. Beijing also appears to genuinely want to avoid the use of nuclear weapons.”
In an interview, Ukrainian ex-diplomat Bohdan Yaremenko, a member of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said “China, surprisingly, is not a concern.”
“From the point of view of public opinion, it’s a distant country, represented by Chinese goods, but not by Chinese foreign policy,” Yaremenko added.