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CNN: US “rigorously” prepared for Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine in late 2022

The US enlisted the help of China and India to discourage Russia from launching a nuclear strike on Ukraine in late 2022, according to senior administration officials.
China’s President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden meet on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali, 2022.
CNN: US “rigorously” prepared for Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine in late 2022

In late 2022, the US began “preparing rigorously” for the possibility of Russia striking Ukraine with a nuclear weapon, which would have been the first nuclear attack in war since the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki nearly 80 years ago, CNN reports, citing two senior administration officials.

A potential Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine would pose a new dilemma for the US and UK as signatories of the Budapest Memorandum, which saw Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament in exchange for security assurances that have proved inefficient. There are indicators that Western nuclear nations would physically respond to such a Russian strike, but with conventional weapons.

According to the officials, the Biden administration was specifically concerned that Russia might use a tactical or battlefield nuclear weapon. “That’s what the conflict presented us, and so we believed ­and I think it’s our right ­to prepare rigorously and do everything possible to avoid that happening,” the first senior administration official told CNN.

The administration’s fear “was not just ­hypothetical —​­ it was also based on some information that we picked up,” the second senior administration official said. During this period from late summer to fall 2022, the National Security Council convened a series of meetings to put contingency plans in place “in the event of either a very clear indication that they were about to do something, attack with a nuclear weapon, or if they just did, how we would respond, how we would try to preempt it, or deter it,” the first senior administration official explained.

Late summer 2022 proved to be a devastating period for Russian forces in Ukraine, as Ukrainian forces were advancing on Russian-occupied Kherson in the south, Russia’s biggest prize since the invasion. The view inside the administration was that such a catastrophic loss could be a “potential trigger” for the use of nuclear weapons.

“If significant numbers of Russian forces were ­overrun —​­ if their lives were shattered as such —​­ that was a sort of precursor to a potential threat directly to Russian territory or the Russian state,” the first senior administration official said.

At the same time, Russia’s propaganda machine was circulating a new false flag story about a Ukrainian dirty bomb, which US officials feared could be intended as cover for a Russian nuclear attack. Western intelligence agencies had also received information that there were now communications among Russian officials explicitly discussing a nuclear strike.

“It’s never a cut-and-​dry, black-​and-​white assessment,” the first senior administration official told CNN. “But the risk level seemed to be going up, beyond where it had been at any other point in time.”

However, US officials were not certain they would know if Russia was moving tactical nuclear weapons into place, as they are small enough to be moved quietly and could be fired from conventional systems already deployed to the Ukrainian battlefield.

“If what they were going to do is use a tactical nuclear weapon, particularly a very low-​yield tactical nuclear weapon, and particularly if they were only going to use one or a very small number, it was not 100% clear to us that we necessarily would have known,” the senior administration official continued.

Multiple senior administration officials took part in an urgent outreach, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken communicating US concerns “very directly” with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley calling his Russian counterpart, General Valeriy Gerasimov.

President Joe Biden also sent CIA Director Bill Burns to speak to Sergey Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, in Türkiye to communicate US concerns about a nuclear strike taking place and gauge Russian intentions.

The US also sought to enlist the help of non-allies, in particular China and India, to discourage Russia from such an attack. “One of the things we did was not only message them directly, but strongly urge, press, encourage other countries, to whom they might be more attentive, to do the same thing,” the second senior administration official said. US officials say that outreach and public statements from Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi helped avert a crisis.

Since the nuclear scare of late 2022, US and European officials have not identified any similar threats, but remain vigilant. “We have been less concerned about the imminent prospect since that period, but it’s not something that is ever far from our minds,” a senior US official told CNN. “We continue to refine plans, ­and … it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that we could be confronting at least the rising risk of this again in the months ahead.”

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