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Putin publicly put Russian nuclear forces on high alert. What should we make of that?


Russian President Vladimir Putin very publicly put Russian nuclear forces on a higher state of alert recently. And President Biden has warned Russia against using chemical weapons in Ukraine. So exactly how serious are these threats? Well, to talk about that, we've called on NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hi, Greg.


CHANG: All right, so we are literally talking now about nuclear weapons, about chemical weapons. These are taboo weapons. Why are we even discussing their possible use in Ukraine right now?

MYRE: Well, in fair part because the leaders have raised them - Putin and Biden and the head of NATO. Now, Putin made his announcement in front of the cameras just a couple of days into the war. He was clearly signaling that Russia has the ability to escalate. And just last week, Biden said that if Russia used chemical weapons, this would trigger a response that he didn't specify. Now, most of the experts we've talked to said you can't rule out the use of these weapons, but the actual likelihood of a chemical weapons attack being used is low, and the risk is even lower still for a nuclear weapon attack.

CHANG: OK. I guess that's a little reassuring. But how are those experts able to conclude this?

MYRE: Well, these weapons can, of course, inflict mass indiscriminate casualties. But Russia is already using very heavy weapons. And it's not clear how these additional weapons would help Russia achieve its aims. So I raised this with Michael Kofman. He's an expert on the Russian military at the research group CNA.

MICHAEL KOFMAN: Chemical weapons aren't necessary, at least in the way Russia is fighting this war. They have the artillery. They have the firepower. And they have the air power. If they want to be those brutish and prosecute such an ugly campaign in the cities, not to say it's a lot better, but it's a lot more practical than having to use chemical weapons.

MYRE: And he says the same is true with nuclear weapons. Again, they can inflict the huge casualties, terrorize a population, but it's not clear they'd produce the desired military outcome.

CHANG: Sure. It sounds impractical from a military perspective. But, Greg, I mean, on top of that, wouldn't Russia also face total global condemnation if it did use these kinds of weapons?

MYRE: That's absolutely true. Russia knows there would be strong political blowback. And Russia's already very isolated. It doesn't have many friends. It needs the help from those that it does have. And again, here's Michael Kofman.

KOFMAN: Politically, it's unsound because use of chemical weapons would dramatically increase the risk that the United States or NATO will intervene to this war. And that's something Russia really doesn't want. And so the risk versus benefit calculus simply isn't there. I don't want to say that it's impossible, but it is improbable.

MYRE: So I want to stress Russia hasn't used nuclear or chemical weapons on the battlefield. But under Vladimir Putin, Russia has been blamed for using chemical nerve agents against Putin's critics abroad. There's been several well-documented cases over nearly two decades. Also, Russian forces have been in Syria closely allied with the Syrian president. And that government has used chemical weapons in the country's civil war.

CHANG: Right. OK. Well, in terms of what is happening in Ukraine, can you just bring us up to date on developments there real quick?

MYRE: Yeah. Russia and Ukraine had these negotiations today, and there were some interesting proposals. Russia said it was going to sharply reduce attacks in Kyiv and the north of the country. Now, Ukraine said it could potentially accept neutral status in exchange for some security guarantees. But there's still heavy fighting. The Pentagon is very skeptical about these Russian claims, thinks it could just be repositioning for a future offensive.

CHANG: That is NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.