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CNN: US prepared for Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine in late 2022

Fears were based on sensitive intelligence

At the end of 2022, the United States began to "thoroughly prepare" for the possibility that Russia might strike Ukraine with nuclear weapons. The level of planning was unprecedented, and it was not a single indicator, but a combination of events and analysis of sensitive intelligence data that the Russian government was openly discussing a nuclear strike.

This was written by CNN journalist Jim Sciutto, citing two senior representatives of the administration of US President Joe Biden. According to the officials, the Biden administration was particularly concerned that Russia could use tactical or combat nuclear weapons.

"That's what the conflict has given us, and that's what we believed, and I think it's our right to prepare carefully and do everything we can to make sure that doesn't happen," said one top White House official.

This assessment was not based on a single indicator, but on "a combination of events, analysis, and, most importantly, very sensitive new intelligence," the article says.

The administration's fears, according to another top Biden official, "were not just hypothetical – they were also based on some of the information we had received."

"We had to plan to be in the best position possible in case this unthinkable event did happen," he said.

Since late summer and into the fall of 2022, the US National Security Council has convened a series of meetings to develop contingency plans "if there are very clear indications that they are going to do something, attack with nuclear weapons, or if they just did, how would we respond, how would we try to prevent or deter that," the source said.

"I don't think many of us, when we start our jobs, expect to spend a significant amount of time preparing for a scenario that was considered a bygone era a few years ago," the U.S. official said.

According to CNN, such conversations in the White House took place just as the Ukrainian Defense Forces launched a counteroffensive in the Kherson region and the occupiers were close to losing Kherson, the only regional center they were able to capture after February 24, 2022.

The Biden administration believed that such a catastrophic loss for Russia could be a "potential trigger" for the use of nuclear weapons, the article says.

Although Russia was losing ground in sovereign Ukraine, not on its territory, U.S. officials were concerned that Russian President Vladimir Putin saw the situation differently. He told the Russians that Kherson was now supposedly part of Russia itself, and therefore could perceive its loss as a direct threat to the Russian state.

"Our assessment is that for some time now, one of the scenarios in which they have been considering the use of nuclear weapons has included things like existential threats to the Russian state, direct threats to Russian territory," the senior administration official said.

According to this assessment, Russia could consider a tactical nuclear strike as a means of deterring further losses in Ukraine, as well as any potential attack on Russia, CNN writes.

At the same time, the Russian propaganda machine was spreading a new fake about an alleged Ukrainian "dirty bomb," which the United States feared could be used as a cover for a Russian nuclear attack.

In October 2022, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made a series of phone calls to representatives of the US, UK, France, and Turkey's defense ministries, saying that the Kremlin was allegedly "concerned about possible provocations by Kyiv related to the use of a dirty bomb."

The United States rejected the Russian "warnings" but feared their motives.

"The Russian public statements about the possibility of Ukraine using a dirty bomb came out of left field, which we've seen has no basis in reality," the source said, adding that he was "more concerned" that the Russians were saying such things "either as an excuse to do something crazy or as a cover for something they were going to do, so that was very disturbing."

But there was one more thing that raised such fears to a new level. Western intelligence agencies received information that there were talks between Russian officials in which a nuclear strike was openly discussed.

"There were signs that in other ways we realized that this was at least something that was being discussed at lower levels of the Russian system," the source said.

U.S. access to Russia's internal communications has proven effective in the past. On the eve of the invasion of Ukraine, the United States intercepted conversations between Russian military commanders discussing preparations for the invasion. These communications became part of the U.S. intelligence assessment, which later proved accurate in that an invasion was imminent.

"It's never a categorical, black-and-white assessment. But the level of risk seems to have increased and exceeded what it was at any other time," a senior Biden administration official said.

At the same time, according to CNN, the United States has never found any intelligence indicating that Russia is taking steps to mobilize its nuclear forces to conduct such an attack.

"Obviously, we prioritize tracking and have some ability to at least track such movements of its nuclear forces. And at no time have we seen any indication of the steps that we would expect them to take if they were to go down the path of using nuclear weapons," the official said. 

However, the United States was not sure what it would learn about Russia's deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. Unlike strategic nuclear weapons, which can destroy entire cities, tactical or combat nuclear weapons are small enough to be moved silently and can be launched from conventional systems already deployed on the battlefield in Ukraine.

"Whether they were going to use tactical nuclear weapons, especially very low-yield tactical nuclear weapons, and especially if they were going to use only one or a very small number, it wasn't 100 percent clear that we would necessarily know," the White House official said.

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