Ukraine recaptured more of its territory from Russian forces Monday amid reports from European media that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be mobilizing elements of his country’s massive nuclear arsenal for potential use on the battlefield.
Senior U.S. military officials would not directly address reports that a Russian Ministry of Defense train responsible for the transport of nuclear munitions is on the move toward the Ukrainian border. The Times of London, citing Polish defense analysts who track Russian nuclear movements, first reported the development.
The Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that NATO nations are preparing for the possibility that Mr. Putin may soon order tests of Russia’s nuclear-armed Poseidon torpedoes.
Less than two weeks ago, Mr. Putin warned the West that Moscow is prepared to use “all of our available means” to defend Russian territory from Ukrainian attacks. The remark has raised alarm in Washington and across Europe as fears mount that a desperate Kremlin may take drastic action as it loses more ground to Ukrainian troops.
A senior military official was asked repeatedly Monday whether the U.S. has seen any indication that Russia may be moving nuclear assets. The official did not directly comment on Russia’s movements but said the U.S. is making no changes to its positioning.
“When it gets into the topic of movement, regardless of where it is worldwide … I’m just not going to get into intelligence. Again, we’ve seen nothing that would cause us to change our posture. Leave it at that,” the official told reporters on a conference call.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told CNN on Sunday that he had seen no indication that Mr. Putin made a decision to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine despite the veiled threats from the Russian leader and some of his top aides.
Other Russian officials have made repeated references to the possibility of nuclear war to stop Ukraine’s Western allies from continuing to arm Kyiv. A top Russian diplomat on Monday explicitly warned of a looming “military clash of nuclear powers.” Blaming the West for its aggressive backing of Ukraine, the diplomat said the U.S. and NATO are on the verge of being a party to “armed conflict” with Russia.
“Statements about the need to defeat us on the battlefield and strategically pumping the criminal Kyiv regime with weapons, including advanced missile systems, providing intelligence and earmarking military and civilian targets that we defend, the direct involvement of Western advisers and mercenaries in hostilities, leading to the deaths of Russian soldiers and officers as well as civilians — all this brings the West extremely close to becoming a party to an armed conflict with our country,” said Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control.
“This is likely to escalate all the way up to a direct military clash of nuclear powers with all the ensuing disastrous consequences,” he told a United Nations panel on Monday, according to Russia’s state-run Tass news agency.
The rhetoric does not appear to be deterring the Biden administration. The Associated Press reported Monday that the U.S. will soon deliver to Ukraine four more of the advanced rocket systems credited with helping Kyiv turn the tide of the battle in the east and south.
The High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, known as HIMARS, will be part of a $625 million aid package expected to be announced on Tuesday. It will be the first HIMARS shipment to Ukraine since late July.
On the defensive
Fears that Russia may resort to smaller-yield, “tactical” nuclear bombs have grown since Mr. Putin issued his warning to the West and Ukrainian troops racked up wins on the battlefield.
While Russia’s parliament passed legislation Monday to formally annex four Ukrainian territories, Ukrainian forces pushed deeper into those territories, dealing an embarrassing blow to Moscow and fueling criticism of Mr. Putin’s war effort at home.
Ukrainian troops recaptured territory and villages around the strategically vital city of Kherson on Monday. Russian officials took the rare step of publicly acknowledging a defeat.
“With numerically superior tank units in the direction of Zolota Balka and Oleksandrivka, the enemy managed to forge deep into our defenses,” Russian defense spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
In Luhansk, local officials said Ukrainian troops recaptured the village of Torske, 12 miles from the key city of Kreminna.
Pushing enemy forces out of Kreminna would represent a major setback for the Russian war effort, Ukrainian officials said.
“Kreminna is key for controlling the entire Luhansk region because further beyond [the city] the Russians don’t have any more lines of defenses,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov told The Associated Press. “Retaking this city opens up operational space for Ukrainians to rapidly advance to the very state border with Russia.”
Ukrainian forces made a successful weekend push to retake the city of Lyman in the Donetsk province after victories farther north in and around the city of Kharkiv.
Russia annexed Donetsk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Luhansk last week after “referendums” in those regions. The U.S. and most of the rest of the world have rejected the referendums as fraudulent.
Russia’s claims of annexation are not expected to be recognized outside Moscow.
For Mr. Putin, it has been a stunning contrast. He is moving forward with his annexation effort even while Russian troops are forced to retreat from those regions. The embarrassment is compounded by the fact that Russian forces are being pushed out of areas that their separatist allies controlled in the eight-year frozen conflict with the Ukrainian government before Mr. Putin ordered his invasion in February.
U.S. military officials said Russian troops are in a “defensive crouch” in parts of eastern Ukraine and now face significant supply line and logistical challenges in the theater. What’s more, Russia’s widely hyped military mobilization — ordered by Mr. Putin nearly two weeks ago — has yet to materialize.
“We have not seen a large-scale reinforcement of forces at this stage,” a senior U.S. military official told reporters Monday. “In terms of whether or not any of the newly mobilized forces have moved into Ukraine, all I would say at this stage is not on a large scale.”
The military call-up has sparked fierce protests across Russia. Many Russian men have reportedly fled to bordering countries rather than face the prospect of being forced into battle in Ukraine. At the same time, Russia’s laundry list of military blunders has sparked unusually blunt criticism of Mr. Putin at home, including by prominent Russian military bloggers who typically take extremely favorable views of the Russian war effort.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said in a Sunday analysis that Russian military bloggers, or “milbloggers,” are increasingly breaking with the Kremlin’s carefully crafted narrative that the war is broadly proceeding according to plan.
“The current onslaught of criticism and reporting of operational military details by the Kremlin’s propagandists has come to resemble the milblogger discourse over this past week,” researchers with the institute wrote. “The Kremlin narrative had focused on general statements of progress and avoided detailed discussions of current military operations. The Kremlin had never openly recognized a major failure in the war prior to its devastating loss in Kharkiv Oblast, which prompted the partial reserve mobilization.”