Russia’s ‘dirty bomb’ threats challenge the nuclear calculus


As Russia celebrates its mounting losses in Ukraine with threats of nuclear weapons and “dirty bombs,” Western leaders are forced to grapple with whether Moscow could be planning a dramatic escalation on the battlefield. limited collection response options.

The president and his advisers were watching closely for a signal from the Kremlin that Biden believed the world was closer to “Armageddon” than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Government level officials they publicly warned that any move to meet Russia’s threats to develop nuclear weapons would be met with a “decisive” response with “catastrophic consequences.”

“Talk of using these kinds of weapons is dangerous and irresponsible,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters last week about Russia’s nuclear threats, adding: “If that happened, you would see a very significant response from the international community. community.”

Administration officials declined when asked to specify what that response might look like, citing the need for strategic ambiguity; and the value of keeping their options open. They have been very specific, they say, in private channels with Russia, including direct contacts between government-level officials and their counterparts in Moscow, which have become more frequent as the Kremlin’s rhetoric grows more threatening. They also stress that the United States has a wide range of response options from which to choose.

However, the administration’s hands may be more tied than its representatives would like to admit.

Sanctions would be an obvious means of punishment, but some experts worry that punitive economic measures alone will not be enough. To bring Putin to heel.

“Sanctions do not have a proven track record of serving as a successful deterrent,” said Eddie Fishman, a former State Department official who worked on the Russia sanctions portfolio under the Obama administration and now teaches at Columbia University. “Unfortunately, the ship has sailed with it. The US must be ready to use military force.”

A military response would be a stronger show of Western denial, but a retaliatory attack on Russian interests risks the outbreak of war between NATO and Russia, something the Biden administration has so far tried hard to avoid.

The idea of ​​meeting a nuclear strike with a nuclear strike is clearly off the table, according to experts.

“I don’t think the United States would even think about a nuclear response. If Putin is bad at blowing up a nuke, then the US is bad at blowing up a nuke,” said Hans Christensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “You break a taboo and you get nothing out of it, the only thing you get out of it is more nuclear escalation.”

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That leaves the US in strategically uncharted territory. For decades, the entire approach to maintaining, updating, and increasing the US nuclear arsenal has been to prevent attacks on the homeland, US allies, and other interests. Much less clear is what checks a rival nuclear power that launches a radioactive attack against a third-party country in a way that offends morale and overturns decades of precedent, but does not necessarily pose a direct physical threat. On US or NATO soil.

“Political context, intelligence, intent, and our overall context will matter a lot here,” said Thomas Caracco, who directs the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, citing several examples. the nature of the nuclear use, what was the height, what were the consequences, how many people died?”

Raised concern is over Russia’s radioactive attack centers around two main scenarios: Moscow uses a dirty bomb or a “tactical” nuclear weapon against Ukraine.

The dirty bomb speculation stems from comments by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, echoed by Putin last week, suggesting that Ukraine planned to detonate a fissile-laden device on its own soil. US officials believe it is more likely that Russia’s warnings were actually the opening steps of a false flag operation that signaled the Kremlin’s intentions to use such weapons and blame the consequences on the Ukrainians. literally.

The comments added new urgency to concerns that Moscow could use its vast arsenal of low-yield nuclear weapons to launch a devastating but geographically limited strike on Ukraine. Such a move would not only terrify the local population, but also throw down the gauntlet to the rest of the globe, which has not seen nuclear weapons since the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States, as recalled by Putin.

“The only country in the world that used nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state was the United States of America. they used it twice against Japan,” he reminded participants of the Valdai Discussion Club last week. “What was the purpose? There was no military need for it at all. The US is the only country that has done this because it thought it was in its own interest.”

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This is what nuclear weapons Russia has in its arsenal

Yet despite the urgency that such potential developments have injected into government planning, Washington has largely played down the idea that Putin will follow through on his threats. Austin said last week that there was “no indication” that Russia was actually planning to use a dirty bomb. Military leaders have something similar sought to defuse Biden’s recent statement that Putin was “not kidding” about a potential “Armageddon,” stressing that it was far more likely that the beleaguered Kremlin strongman was letting off some steam as Ukrainian fighter jets pushed the Russian military into a series of embarrassing retreats. .

Days later, Biden backtracked on his own comments, saying he did not think Putin would actually use nuclear weapons.

In recent days, Putin is also trying to take a step back. In a speech to the Valda Discussion Club last week, he insisted that his government “has never actively said anything about the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons; all we did was make comments in response to statements made by Western leaders.” Putin also insisted that Russia “doesn’t need” to use either nuclear weapons or a dirty bomb, insisting that “it makes no sense for us, either politically or militarily.”

Western powers warn Russia could use ‘dirty bomb’ claim to escalate Ukraine war

But US officials are reluctant to let their guard down. According to administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss their assessment of the battlefield, Russia is unlikely to retreat completely any time soon, even as Ukraine’s recent battlefield victories put its forces on the back foot. And how? Russia is depleting its troops and its conventional arsenal, the danger is growing Moscow is turning to more insidious tactics and weapons to repel Ukrainian counterattacks.

“The practical effect of depleting their conventional forces is, unfortunately, a greater reliance on their nuclear forces,” a senior defense official told reporters last week, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss US nuclear strategy.


Against that backdrop, U.S. officials have been adamantly resistant to signaling any kind of restrictions on Putin’s intentions to use the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which is the only one in the world that can rival Russia’s. They remained mum even after French President Emmanuel Macron announced earlier this month that France would not meet a Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine with a nuclear strike on Russia, a position he later. defended himself under fire“We don’t want a world war.”

Military analysts believe that NATO has a far and away advantage in head-to-head combat against conventional forces.

“That’s why he makes those nuclear threats anyway. he was trying to keep NATO from getting involved conditionally,” said Heather Williams, director of the Nuclear Issues Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

However, officials and experts increasingly think that what could bring Putin back from the brink of radioactive war is the threat of mutually assured destruction from the West. but losing his last allies.

Russia has managed to maintain its military machine and domestic economy despite punitive Western sanctions thanks to oil and gas sales. In the eight months since its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has pumped fossil fuels not only into Europe’s energy grids, but also into the mass markets of China and India.

Beijing and New Delhi, both nuclear powers, have remained largely neutral on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, repeatedly abstaining from key UN votes condemning Moscow’s war and recent annexation of Ukrainian territory. They have so far refused to accept Western efforts to cap Russian oil prices, which could limit energy profits flowing back to Moscow.

But experts doubt that China and India will stand by Moscow if the latter uses nuclear weapons.

“Any nuclear use for Putin is a big risk because he can’t know for sure how New Delhi and Beijing will respond to it,” Williams said, stressing that Asian economic powers could distance themselves from it. Russia, if Putin crosses the border.

If Russia the last remaining friends had to do show their disdain for the use of radioactive weapons could pull the rug out from under Moscow’s entire war effort.

“Using nuclear weapons, it can win the battle,” Williams said, “but not the war.”


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