Apr 15, 2022 - World

CIA director: U.S. can't "take lightly" Russian nuclear threat in Ukraine

CIA Director William Burns speaking during a congressional hearing in March 2022.
CIA Director William Burns speaking during a congressional hearing in March 2022. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Military setbacks and "potential desperation" could prompt Russian President Vladimir Putin to use "tactical" or "low-yield" nuclear weapons against Ukraine, CIA Director William Burns warned during a speech at Georgia Tech on Thursday.

Why it matters: So-called "tactical" nuclear weapons are considered "low-yield" only because other nuclear weapons have become unimaginably powerful. Any nuclear strike against Ukraine would be far more powerful and devastating than any conventional attack.

  • Burns stressed that the intelligence community has seen no "practical evidence" that would suggest such a nuclear attack against Ukraine was imminent but it was not ignoring the threat.

What they're saying: Given "the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks that they've faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons," Burns said.

  • While "we've seen some rhetorical posturing on the part of the Kremlin, about moving to higher nuclear alert levels, so far we haven't seen a lot of practical evidence of the kind of deployments or military dispositions that would reinforce that concern," he added.
  • "We watch for that very intently. It's one of our most important responsibilities at CIA."

How it works: Russia has in its nuclear arsenal thousands of smaller warheads, and multiple different systems that can deliver those warheads in shorter and intermediate ranges.

The big picture: Shortly after the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Putin placed the country's nuclear deterrent forces on alert.

  • Kremlin officials have repeatedly warned that Russia would use nuclear weapons if there's a "threat for existence" to the country.
  • Burns said that Russian military doctrine allows for the use of such weapons in order to de-escalate a conventional military threat.

Go deeper: Russia threatens to deploy nukes to Baltic if Sweden and Finland join NATO

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