As concerns grow over the rattling of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber amid ongoing losses in Ukraine, what a US response would look like has become an increasingly pressing question.
US officials have stressed since the beginning of the Russian attack on Ukraine that plans are being developed to counter a series of actions by Moscow, but have kept the details secret.
While the government says there are no signs the Kremlin has taken steps toward a nuclear strike — and that Washington hasn’t changed its own nuclear position — experts say the US’s possible options could be seen as a very real scenario. Russia’s floundering military campaign and an increasingly frustrated Putin.
Mark Cancian, a former Pentagon official turned defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said a US response to a major Russian attack would be twofold: military and diplomatic.
“If the Ukrainians continued to fight, we would continue our aid flow and we would probably take the gloves off,” he told The Hill.
At the top of Ukraine’s wish list is the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), a surface-to-surface missile that can travel four times further than anything Kiev currently has in its fight against Russia. The embattled country has been pushing the US for the system for months, but Washington has been hesitant to provide it for fear it could escalate the conflict.
However, should Moscow use a tactical nuclear weapon on Ukrainian troops or civilians, or even detonate such a device outside populated areas, Cancian predicted that the Kiev government would finally allow ATACMS or “anything they wanted” behind Russian targets. to start.
On the diplomatic side, Russia’s use of nuclear weapons could well lead to countries like India, China and Turkey – the latter a NATO ally – putting economic pressure on Putin, Cancian said.
“A nuclear attack would, I think, really put a lot of pressure on them to go with the sanctions and take a tougher line to Russia so that Russia would lose these lifelines that they were clinging to and nurturing,” he said. .
National security adviser Jake Sullivan said last week there would be “catastrophic consequences” if Moscow deployed nuclear weapons, and said a more specific ultimatum had been issued privately to Moscow.
President Biden has said from the start of the war that no US troops will be sent to Ukraine, and experts warn that a nuclear response to a nuclear attack could quickly escalate into a nuclear world war.
Retired General David Petraeus made a prediction about how the US would react to a Russian nuclear attack on Sunday, though he noted that he had deliberately avoided talking to Sullivan about it.
“I mean, to give you a hypothesis, we would respond by leading a NATO, a collective effort, that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea,” he said.
Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, said on Tuesday that U.S. officials have “constantly consulted with allies about the Russian threat, and the nuclear threat Russia poses is just one aspect of that, and certainly the NATO forum is our main forum for consultation on these issues.”
An Austrian official told The Hill it has offered the country as a neutral ground for difficult negotiations and is ready to organize de-escalation talks and maintain channels with Russia.
While Putin’s nationally televised speech last month wasn’t the first time he has raised the specter of nuclear war, current and former US officials have raised new alarm bells about the Kremlin’s increasingly belligerent nuclear rhetoric as it moves towards annexing four regions of Ukraine.
Putin threatened on August 21 that Moscow would deploy its massive nuclear arsenal to protect Russian territory or its people — which could now include the four Russian-occupied Ukrainian regions. However, both Kiev and Washington have said they will not let that stop them from continuing to fight to take back those regions.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in an interview with UKTN aired Sunday that while he has not seen any information suggesting the Russian leader has chosen to use nuclear weapons, “there is no control over Mr Putin.”
“Just to be clear, the man who makes that decision, I mean, it’s one man,” Austin said.
National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, John Kirby, said on Monday that the US was “closely” controlling Russian activity at the Zaporizhzhya power plant, another location Putin could choose to attack to escalate the war. keeps an eye on.
And former national security adviser HR McMaster said on Sunday that Putin is “under extreme pressure” due to battlefield failures and domestic outcry over a mobilization order that could send hundreds of thousands of reservists into war.
“I think the message to [Putin] is: If you use a nuclear weapon, it is a suicide weapon. And the response from NATO and the United States doesn’t have to be nuclear,” McMaster told Margaret Brennan, host of Face the Nation on UKTN.
Fears were further fueled this week when an online video appeared of a train in Russia that appeared to be carrying equipment from a Kremlin military unit that wields nuclear weapons. The video, which Pentagon officials were unable to confirm, shows military vehicles allegedly from the secret 12th Chief Directorate of the Russian Defense Ministry being transported on the train, according to Konrad Muzyka, an aerospace and defense analyst focused on Russia and Belarus.
The Kremlin unit is responsible for nuclear munitions, their storage, maintenance, transportation and issuance, Muzyka tweeted on Sunday.
“I have seen these reports. I have nothing to confirm,” Cooper told reporters on Tuesday when asked about the video.
When asked if the Pentagon has seen anything to indicate that Russia is considering the use of nuclear weapons, she said officials have “certainly heard Putin’s saber chatter” but “see no signs that would lead us to change our stance.”
Cooper also declined to answer questions about whether the US has seen any movement of Russia’s nuclear forces, citing the protection of US intelligence agencies.
Some, including Rep. House Intelligence Committee member Mike Turner (R-Ohio) has urged the government to increase its nuclear readiness in Europe and move additional missile defense assets to the region.
“This administration needs to step up its fight against missile defense,” Turner told UKTN News last weekend. “We have resources in Europe and we need to deploy them so that we can protect our allies.”
There has also been much speculation about the exact kind of weapon Putin could potentially use, with fears that he might resort to using tactical nuclear weapons — intended to be used in battle or on a specific population center to try to end the conflict.
“We should always try to take the threat of nuclear use seriously and we do, and that’s why we’re watching it closely, and that’s why we’re consulting closely with allies,” Cooper said.
“But at the same time, right now, [Russia’s] rhetoric is just rhetoric and it is irresponsible saber chatter that we are seeing at this point.”
For now, the US will respond to Russian aggression by continuing to pour weapons and other aid into Ukraine, including four more of the advanced missile systems that Kiev has credited with being instrumental in the offensive launched early this month.
The soon-to-be-delivered High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) — used by Ukrainians to attack bridges, roads and ammunition storage areas that Russia uses to resupply its troops — are part of a new $625 million deadly aid package that Tuesday was announced.
Asked later on Tuesday whether the United States will provide anything to help Ukrainians protect themselves from a potential nuclear attack, Cooper said Washington has already supplied “a significant amount of protective equipment against chemical, biological and radiological threats.”
She pointed to a military aid package from earlier this year that contained “a number of personal protective equipment” as well as “significant amounts” of such equipment given as part of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.
Laura Kelly contributed to the reporting
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