(CNN) — With growing concern that Vladimir Putin will escalate Russia’s war in Ukraine, the US is studying how to respond to a number of possible scenarios, including fears that the Russians could use tactical nuclear weapons, according to three sources briefed on the latest intelligence data.
Since the beginning of the conflict, the US has been developing contingency plans to respond, among other things, to the possibility that the Russian president could escalate to little less than a nuclear attack on Ukraine, through what a The source described it as a “nuclear display”, such as a possible military attack on the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, or the detonation of a nuclear device at high altitudes or far from populated areas.
Officials warn that the United States has detected no preparations for a nuclear attack. But experts see them as potential options for which the United States should prepare as the Russian invasion falters and Moscow annexes more Ukrainian territory.
US officials have also taken note of the Russian president’s repeated public threats to use nuclear weapons. In a televised speech late last month, Putin said: “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all available means to protect Russia and our people. This is not a game.”
On Friday, at a ceremony announcing the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions, Putin said Russia would use “all available means” to defend the areas, adding that the United States had “set a precedent” for nuclear attacks on 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. Although he noted that there is no evidence yet of preparations for such an attack, Quigley added: “It has to be taken seriously.”
The US is studying the range of possible scenarios to have contingency plans on how it would respond, together with its partners, to any attack of this type. The possibility of a “nuclear deployment” is seen as an option if Putin does not go ahead with a nuclear attack on Ukrainian forces or population centers, opting instead for what one official described as a “show of bravado.”
A nuclear attack is still considered unlikely, although concern among US officials about the possibility of such an attack has increased in recent weeks. “Defeat,” said an informed intelligence source, “is not an option for Putin.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in an exclusive interview with CNN broadcast on Sunday that he has seen nothing to suggest that Putin has decided to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
“To be clear, the guy who makes that decision, I mean, is one man,” Austin said of Russian nuclear weapons threats in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on “Fareed Zakaria GPS.”
“There are no checks on Mr. Putin. Just like 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 that decision.”
While there has been growing public opposition to the war inside Russia, the US believes Putin is under increased pressure from more radical nationalists, who are urging further escalation of the conflict, a source briefed on intelligence said. .
Asked about CNN reporting on “New Day” on Monday, John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, said the US is “closely” watching Russia’s actions at the plant. Zaporizhia power plant amid concerns that Putin could escalate his war with Ukraine and has been “thinking about” the response to any potential use of nuclear weapons by Russia.
Although the US has not seen anything that has changed the US strategic posture, “we are watching this as closely as we can,” Kirby said, adding: “We take these threats seriously.”