Russian ‘dirty bomb’ threats challenge nuclear calculus
The president and his advisers are closely monitoring signals from the Kremlin, which Biden believed were bringing the world closer to “Armageddon” than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cabinet level officials have publicly warned that any move by Russia to follow through on threats about its nuclear program will be met with a “decisive” response with “catastrophic consequences.”
“Talking about the use of weapons of that kind is dangerous and irresponsible,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters last week about Russian nuclear threats, adding: “If this were to happen … you would see a very significant response from the international community.”
Administration officials balked when asked to specify what that response might look like, citing the need for strategic ambiguity – and the value of holding options open. They have been quite specific with Russia through private channels, they say, including direct engagements between cabinet-level officials and their counterparts in Moscow, which are becoming more frequent as the Kremlin’s rhetoric grows more threatening. They also emphasize that the United States has a wide array of response options from which to choose.
Still, the administration’s hands may be tied more than its representatives would like to admit.
Sanctions would be an obvious means of punishment — but some experts worry that punitive economic moves alone will not be enough to bring Putin to heel.
“Sanctions have no proven track record of effective deterrence,” said Eddie Fishman, a former State Department employee who worked on the Russia sanctions portfolio during the Obama administration and now teaches at Columbia University. “Unfortunately, the ship was sailing with a team. … The United States must be prepared to use military force.”
A military response would be a stronger show of rejection of the West, but a retaliatory attack on Russian interests risks provoking a war between NATO and Russia, something the Biden administration has so far studiously tried to avoid.
The idea of meeting a nuclear strike with a nuclear strike, according to experts, was expressly rejected.
“I don’t think the United States would even consider a nuclear response. If Putin is bad for detonating a nuclear bomb, then the US is bad for detonating a nuclear bomb,” said Hans Christensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “Break the taboo and you get nothing out of it – the only thing you get out of it is more nuclear escalation.”
This leaves the United States in strategically uncharted territory. For decades, the entire approach to maintaining, updating, and growing America’s nuclear arsenal has been to deter attacks on the homeland, America’s allies, and other interests. Far less clear is the playbook for checking a rival nuclear power that launches a radioactive attack on a third-party state in a way that morally offends and overturns decades of precedent—but does not necessarily pose a direct, physical threat to US or NATO soil.
“The political context, the intelligence, the intent and our overall context would be very important here,” said Thomas Karako, who directs the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, citing several examples of considerations: “What was the nature of the nuclear use, what was the height, what were the effects, how many people died?”
The heightened concern is over Russia’s radioactive attack focused on two key scenarios: Moscow using a dirty bomb or a “tactical” nuclear weapon against Ukraine.
Dirty bomb speculation is tied to the comments Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoiguand repeated last week by Putin, suggesting that Ukraine planned to detonate a device filled with fissile material on its own territory. US officials believe it is more likely that the Russian warnings were actually the initial steps of a false flag operation, signaling 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 draw from its vast arsenal of low-yield nuclear weapons to deliver a devastating but geographically limited blow to Ukraine. Such a move would not only terrorize the local population, but throw down the gauntlet at the feet of the rest of the world, which has not seen nuclear weapons in combat since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 — attacks carried out by the United States, as Putin emphasized.
“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 the participants of the discussion club Valdai last week. “What was the goal? There was no military need for it at all. … The US is the only country that did it because it believed it was in its interest.”
Yet despite the urgency such a potential development would bring to government planning, Washington has largely played down the idea that Putin will follow through on his threats. Last week, Austin said there was “no indication” that Russia was actually planning to use a dirty bomb. Military leaders have a similar attitude tried to tone down Biden’s recent statement that Putin was “not kidding” about the potential “Armageddon,” stressing that it is far more likely that the beleaguered Kremlin strongman was letting off steam as Ukrainian fighters push the Russian army into a series of embarrassing retreats.
Biden walked back his comments a few days later, saying that he didn’t think that Putin would actually use nuclear weapons.
In recent days, Putin has also been trying to back down. Last week, in a speech at the Valdai discussion club, he insisted that his government “has never said anything proactive about Russia potentially using nuclear weapons; all we have done is hint in response to the statements of Western leaders.” Putin also insisted that Russia “has no need” to use either nuclear weapons or a dirty bomb, claiming that “it makes no political or military sense for us.”
But American officials do not want to let their guard down. According to administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss their battlefield assessments, Russia is unlikely to be intimidated into a full withdrawal any time soon, even as Ukraine’s recent battlefield victories have put its forces on the back foot. And like Russia is depleting its troops and its conventional arsenal, the danger is growing Moscow is turning to more insidious tactics and weapons to retaliate against Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
“The practical effect of their depletion of their conventional forces is unfortunately an even greater reliance on their nuclear forces,” a senior defense official told reporters last week, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. nuclear strategy.
Against this backdrop, US officials have been fiercely resistant to signaling any limits on the use of the US nuclear arsenal — the only one in the world of its size to match Russia’s — to limit Putin’s intentions. They continued to remain silent even after French President Emmanuel Macron stated earlier this month that France will not respond to a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine with a nuclear attack on Russia – a position that is later defended under firestating “we don’t want a world war”.
Military analysts believe that in a direct confrontation of conventional forces, NATO has far and away the advantage.
“That’s why he’s been making these nuclear threats all along anyway; is trying to distract NATO from conventional involvement,” 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 that he had lost his last remaining allies.
Russia has managed to keep its war machine and domestic economy afloat despite a series of Western sanctions, thanks to oil and gas sales. In the eight months since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has pumped fossil fuels not only into the energy grids of Europe, but also into the vast 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 United Nations votes condemning Moscow’s war and recent annexation of Ukrainian territory. They have so far refused to accept Western efforts to establish upper limits on Russian oil prices that could limit the return of energy supplies to Moscow.
But experts doubt that China and India would stand by Moscow if it were to use nuclear weapons.
“For Putin, any nuclear use is a huge risk because he cannot know for sure, one way or the other, how New Delhi and Beijing will respond to it,” Williams said, stressing that Asian economic powers could distance themselves from Russia. if Putin crosses the line.
If it’s Russian the last remaining friends were demonstrate their disdain for the use of radioactive weapons, that could pull the rug out from under Moscow’s entire war effort.
“The use of nuclear weapons might win the battle,” Williams said, “but not the war.”
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