The threat of Russia potentially using tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons in Ukraine cannot be taken lightly, but the CIA has not seen a lot of practical evidence reinforcing that concern, CIA Director William Burns said on Thursday.
Burns’ most extensive public comments since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 underscored concerns that the biggest attack against a European state since 1945 risks escalating to the use of nuclear weapons.
Earlier on Thursday, Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, warned NATO that Moscow would deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave in the heart of Europe, if Sweden and Finland joined the Atlantic alliance.
Burns spoke at Georgia Tech of the “potential desperation” and setbacks dealt Putin, whose forces have suffered heavy losses and have been forced to retreat from some parts of northern Ukraine after failing to capture Kyiv.
For those reasons, “none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons,” Burns said.
That said, despite “rhetorical posturing” by the Kremlin about putting the world’s largest nuclear arsenal on high alert, “We haven’t seen a lot of practical evidence of the kind of deployments or military dispositions that would reinforce that concern.”
Tactical and low-yield nuclear weapons refer to those designed for use on the battlefield, of which some experts estimate Russia has about 2,000 that can be delivered by air, naval and ground forces.