The U.S. response will become an increasingly pressing issue as concerns grow over the threat of a nuclear weapon amid the continued loss of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine.
Since Russia began its attack on Ukraine, U.S. officials have stressed that plans are being developed to deal with a series of actions by Moscow, but have kept the specifics secret.
While the government has said there is no sign the Kremlin has taken a nuclear strike — nor has Washington changed its nuclear stance — experts say that given Russia’s troubled military campaign and Putin’s growing disappointment.
Mark Cancian, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Pentagon official, said the U.S. response to a major Russian attack would be two-fold — one military and one diplomatic.
“If the Ukrainians continue to fight, we will continue to provide assistance and we will probably take off our gloves,” he told Hill in terms of the weapons supplied to Kyiv.
At the top of Ukraine’s wish list is the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), a surface-to-surface missile that can fly four times as far as Kyiv is currently fighting against Russia. The troubled country has been pressuring the United States for months, but Washington has been reluctant to offer it for fear it could escalate the conflict.
However, if Moscow uses tactical nuclear weapons against Ukrainian troops or civilians, even detonating such devices far away from populated areas, Kansian predicts that the government will eventually allow Kyiv to have ATACMS or “anything else they want” to track Russian targets.
Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front, Russia’s use of nuclear weapons is likely to prompt countries such as India, China and Turkey – the latter a NATO ally – to pressure Putin economically, according to Cansian.
“I think a nuclear strike would really put a lot of pressure on them to accept sanctions and take a tougher stance on Russia, so Russia would lose these lifelines that they’ve been holding onto and nurturing,” he said.
National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan said last week that there would be “catastrophic consequences” if Moscow deploys nuclear weapons and said a more specific ultimatum had been given privately to Moscow.
President Biden has said since the war began that he will not send U.S. troops to Ukraine, and experts have warned that a nuclear response to a nuclear attack could quickly escalate into a nuclear world war.
Retired General David Petraeus predicted how the U.S. would respond to Sunday’s Russian nuclear attack, although he noted that he deliberately avoided talking to Sullivan about it.
“I mean, just to give you an assumption, we’re going to respond by leading NATO as a collective effort that’s going to wipe out every single one of our battlefields in Ukraine and Crimea and in Crimea. All Russian regular forces in the Black Sea that can be seen and identified on board the warship,” he said.
Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, said Tuesday that U.S. officials “have been consulting with allies about the Russian threat, and the nuclear threat posed by Russia is just one aspect of it, and certainly NATO too. That’s it. The forum is our primary forum for consultations on these issues.”
An Austrian official told The Hill it provided the country with a neutral ground for difficult negotiations and was prepared to host de-escalation talks and maintain a channel with Russia.
Although Putin’s nationally televised address last month was not the first time he raised the specter of nuclear war, current and former U.S. officials have issue a new alert The Kremlin’s nuclear rhetoric has become increasingly belligerent as it annexes four regions of Ukraine.
Putin threatened on Aug. 21 that Moscow would deploy its vast nuclear arsenal to protect Russian territory or its people — which may now include four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine. However, both Kyiv and Washington have said they will not be prevented from continuing to fight to retake those areas.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a CNN interview that aired Sunday that while he had not seen intelligence that the Russian leader had chosen to use nuclear weapons, “there was no check on Mr. Putin.”
“To be clear, the person who made this decision, I mean, is a person,” Austin said.
John Kirby, the National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator, said on Monday that the United States was “closely” watching Russia’s activities at the Zaporozhye power plant — another site that Putin could choose to attack to escalate the war.
Former national security adviser McMaster said on Sunday that Putin was “under enormous pressure” due to defeats on the battlefield and a domestic outcry over a mobilization order that could send hundreds of thousands of reservists into the war.
“I think the message [Putin] If you use a nuclear weapon, it’s a suicide weapon.NATO and the U.S. response is not necessarily a nuclear one,” McMaster told the “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan on CBS.
Fears were further stoked this week when a video emerged online showing a Russian train that appeared to be carrying equipment from the Kremlin’s military unit that handles nuclear weapons. Video, unverifiable by Pentagon officials, shows military vehicles allegedly from the secretive 12th General Directorate of the Russian Defense Ministry on a train, according to Konrad Muzyka, an aerospace and defense analyst who focuses on Russia and Belarus. transportation.
The Kremlin department is responsible for nuclear munitions and their storage, maintenance, transport and distribution, Music Sunday on Twitter.
“I’ve seen the reports. I have nothing to corroborate,” Cooper told reporters Tuesday when asked about the video.
Asked if the Pentagon had seen any indication that Russia was considering the use of nuclear weapons, she said officials “certainly heard Putin rattling his sword” but “did not see any sign that we would change our stance.”
Cooper also declined to answer questions about whether the U.S. sees Russian nuclear forces moving, citing the protection of U.S. intelligence.
Some, including Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), a top member of the House Intelligence Committee, have urged the administration to increase its nuclear readiness in Europe and move more missile defense assets to the region.
“This administration needs to strengthen missile defenses,” Turner said on Fox News over the weekend. “We have assets in Europe and we need to engage with them in order to protect our allies.”
There has also been much speculation about the exact kinds of weapons Putin might use, fearing he might resort to using tactical nuclear weapons — designed to be used in combat or in specific population centers to try to end the conflict.
“We always have to take the threat of nuclear use seriously, and we do, and that’s why we pay close attention and why we consult closely with our allies,” Cooper said.
“But at the same time, at this point, [Russia’s] Rhetoric is just rhetoric, and what we’re seeing at this point is irresponsible rattling of the sword,” Cooper said.
For now, the United States will respond to Russian aggression by continuing to provide Ukraine with weapons and other assistance, including Four more advanced rocket systems Kyiv was instrumental in the offensive that began earlier this month.
The imminent delivery of the high-mobility artillery rocket system — which the Ukrainians use to target bridges, roads and ammunition storage areas that Russia uses to resupply its troops — is part of a new $625 million lethal aid package announced on Tuesday.
Asked later on Tuesday whether the U.S. would provide any help to Ukrainians to protect themselves from a possible nuclear strike, Cooper said Washington had provided “a fair amount of protective equipment against chemical, biological and radiological threats. .”
She pointed to a military aid package earlier this year that included “some personal protective equipment” and a “substantial” supply of such equipment as part of a cooperative threat reduction program.
Laura Kelly contributed reporting.