U.S. Watching for Warning Signs Putin Is Preparing Nuclear Attack

Russian President Vladimir Putin's thinly veiled nuclear threat has prompted new fears that a Kremlin attack could be on the horizon, but the U.S. is well-positioned to know when Putin plans to strike.

On Wednesday, Putin accused officials from NATO states of trying to "blackmail" Russia with nuclear weapons and warned that he had his own "various weapons of destruction" that he's prepared to hit back with. In a rare pre-taped address, Putin said he'd use "all available means to protect Russia and our people," adding that his warning was "not a bluff."

Launching a nuclear attack is a last-resort measure for Russia, and experts say the U.S. would be able to detect an attack before Putin decides to fire.

Hans Kristensen, the director of the nuclear information project at Federation of American Scientists, told Newsweek that Putin could move quicker with long-range weapons, which are already on high alert, rather than short-range ones, which Russia would have to bring out of central storage.

The intelligence community detecting activity at storage sites where warheads would be loaded to trucks and helicopters, or increased activity among specially trained units that can handle those weapons, would indicate Putin is preparing to strike with short-range weapons.

On the other hand, the use of long-range weapons could be anticipated if land-based mobile launchers, missile submarines or cruise missiles are being moved in greater numbers than normal.

"There would, as part of this, also be a number of detectable activities in the nuclear command and control system and general communication that indicated something was up," Kristensen said.

According to the Federation of American Scientists, Russia has the largest nuclear warhead inventory in the world with a total of 5,977. Comparatively, the U.S. has the second-most with 4,428, followed by France with 290. However, the exact number of warheads in Russia's possession is not known due to security concerns.

Monitoring levels of nuclear activity has been the norm since the Cold War, John Erath, the senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told Newsweek.

John Kirby Discusses Russia
In this combination image, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House in September 2022 and Russian President Vladimir Putin (Inset) pictured at the Kremlin in Moscow on September 14, 2022. Kirby said that there would be "severe consequences" if Russia were to use nuclear weapons, but that U.S. intelligence has "no indication" that events in Ukraine would escalate to that level at this time. Getty

Wednesday is not the first time that Putin has raised alarms over nuclear weapons this year. In March, he placed forces on high alert when Western nations began imposing sanctions on Russia and global corporations withdrew from the country in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

At the time, there was no movement on the ground, which Kristensen said indicated to U.S. officials Putin wasn't preparing to launch a strike. He expected officials to be making similar observations this time around to get clarification of how imminent the threat is. He added that the U.S. military also has nearly 1,000 weapons ready to fire within minutes, so it would also be well-prepared to respond should Putin launch an attack.

On Wednesday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that there would be "severe consequences" if Russia were to use nuclear weapons, but that U.S. intelligence has "no indication" that events in Ukraine would escalate to that level at this time.

Although intelligence officials don't expect Putin to launch a nuclear missile, his remarks sparked a flurry of condemnation from around the world.

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, President Joe Biden said that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." United Kingdom Defense Secretary Ben Wallace also said that "no amount of threats and propaganda" could conceal the fact that Ukraine is moving closer to winning the war against Russia.

However, Ukraine wants officials to take their remarks a step further. On Wednesday, Mykhailo Podolyak, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's senior aide, said that the U.S. and other allies "need to say very firmly" that there will be "swift retaliatory nuclear strikes" if Russia were to carry out a nuclear strike in Ukraine.

Ukraine may not get the harsh language that it wants, and Erath said that world leaders will be "very careful" about what they say because no leader, including Putin, "wants to be responsible for triggering a major nuclear war."

Erath said part of the danger is that Putin isn't bluffing, and world leaders need to take the threat seriously and prepare.

"But I think what he's trying to do is to utilize the threat of nuclear weapons, which everyone knows Russia has in abundance, to get other countries to reconsider their support of Ukraine," Erath said.