Senior Russian military officials recently had discussions on whether and how the Kremlin could use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, according to U.S. officials.
Though Russian President Vladimir Putin was not part of the discussions, the conversations alarmed the Biden administration because they showed how frustrated Russian generals are about their failures in Ukraine and suggest that the Kremlin’s veiled threats to use a nuclear weapon may not just be bluster, according to the New York Times.
Putin’s press secretary dismissed the news as “irresponsible” rhetoric.
“We have not the slightest intention to take part in this pumping, and consider it very, very irresponsible,” Peskov told reporters.
The intelligence about the conversations among Moscow’s top military brass was circulated within the U.S. government in mid-October, according to the Times. During the same time, Putin moved 11 nuclear bombers to Russia’s Olenia airbase, just 115 miles from the border of Norway, a NATO-member country.
The aircraft are normally positioned at Engel’s airbase — more than 440 miles southeast of Moscow and roughly 1,950 miles from Norway — so the redeployment fueled fears that Moscow has been in preparation for a tactical nuclear strike.
News of Russian officials war-gaming scenarios in which the Kremlin could detonate a tactical nuclear weapon comes weeks after a report claiming that Putin has already tried to conduct nuclear tests, but was sabotaged by someone within his own military.
“We’ve been clear from the outset that Russia’s comments about the potential use of nuclear weapons are deeply concerning, and we take them seriously,” John Kirby, a National Security Council official, told the Times. “We continue to monitor this as best we can, and we see no indications that Russia is making preparations for such use.”
Russia and the U.S. maintain the world’s largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that Russia has 1,912 tactical nuclear weapons.
The power of a nuclear weapon is measured in kilotons, a measurement of their TNT equivalent. The nuclear bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had yields of 15 kilotons (15,000 tons of TNT) and 21 kilotons (21,000 tons of TNT), respectively.
“Modern tactical weapons usually have a capacity of 10 to 100 kilotons, which still makes the average tactical weapon potentially more destructive than the bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” according to the Washington Post.