By Jim Sciutto, Chief National Security Correspondent
With concerns growing that Vladimir Putin will escalate Russia’s war in Ukraine, the US is considering how to respond to a range of potential scenarios, including fears that Russians could use tactical nuclear weapons, according to three sources briefed on the latest intelligence.
The US has since the start of the conflict been developing contingency plans to respond, including to the possibility that Russia’s President could escalate via a step just short of a nuclear attack on Ukraine, through what one source described as a “nuclear display,” such as a potential military strike on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, or the detonation of a nuclear device at high-altitude or away from populated areas.
Officials caution the US has not detected preparations for a nuclear strike. However, experts view them as potential options the US must prepare for as Russia’s invasion falters and as Moscow annexes more Ukrainian territory.
US officials have also taken somber note of the Russian President’s repeated public threats to use nuclear weapons. In a televised address late last month, Putin said, “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff.”
On Friday, at a ceremony in which he announced the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions, Putin said Russia would use “all available means” to defend the areas, adding that the US had “created a precedent” for nuclear attacks in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.
“Putin is capable of anything,” Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN. While noting there is no evidence yet of preparations for such an attack, Quigley added, “You have to take him seriously.”
The US is studying the range of potential scenarios in order to have contingency plans in place for how it and its partners would respond to any such attacks. The potential for a “nuclear display” is considered an option if Putin stops short of ordering a nuclear strike on Ukrainian forces or population centers, opting instead for what one official described as a “show of bravado.”
A nuclear strike is still considered unlikely, though concern among US officials about the potential for such an attack has grown in recent weeks. “Defeat,” said one source briefed on the intelligence, “is not an option for Putin.”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in an exclusive interview with CNN broadcast on Sunday that he hasn’t seen anything to suggest Putin has decided to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
“To be clear, the guy who makes that decision, I mean, it’s one man,” Austin said of Russian threats of nuclear weapons in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on “Fareed Zakaria GPS.”
“There are no checks on Mr. Putin. Just as he made the irresponsible decision to invade Ukraine, you know, he could make another decision. But I don’t see anything right now that would lead me to believe that he has made such a decision.”
While there has been growing public opposition to the war inside Russia, the US believes Putin is under greater pressure from hardline nationalists, who are urging further escalation of the conflict, one source briefed on the intelligence said.
Asked about CNN’s reporting on “New Day” on Monday, John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, said the US is “closely” watching Russia’s actions at the Zaporizhzhia power plant amid concerns that Putin could escalate his war with Ukraine and has been “thinking through” the response for any potential use of nuclear weapons by Russia.
Although the US hasn’t seen anything that has changed US strategic posture, “we’re watching this as closely as we can,” Kirby said, adding, “We take these threats seriously.”
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