BRUSSELS – The White House has quietly gathered a team of national security officials to outline scenarios of how the United States and its allies should respond as Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin — frustrated by his lack of progress in Ukraine or determined to support Western countries against intervening in the war – unleashes its stockpiles of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
The Tiger Team, as the group is known, is also investigating reactions when Mr Putin reaches NATO territory to attack convoys bringing weapons and aid to Ukraine, according to several officials involved in the process. The team meets three times a week, in secret sessions, and also reviews responses as Russia seeks to expand the war into neighboring countries, including Moldova and Georgia, and how European countries can prepare for the refugees pouring in on a scale that is not being seen. seen in decades.
Those contingencies are expected to take center stage at an extraordinary session here in Brussels on Thursday, when President Biden meets with leaders of the other 29 NATO countries, who will meet for the first time — behind closed doors, their cell phones and aides banned — since Mr Putin invaded Ukraine.
Just a month ago, such scenarios seemed more theoretical. But today, from the White House to NATO headquarters in Brussels, there has been recognition that Russia may be using the most powerful weapons in its arsenal to rescue itself from a military stalemate.
Underlining the urgency of the preparedness efforts, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday told reporters for the first time that even if the Russians With weapons of mass destruction only within Ukraine, they can have “serious consequences” for people in NATO countries. He seemed to be talking about the fear that chemical or radioactive clouds might drift across the border. One issue under investigation is whether such collateral damage would be considered an “attack” on NATO under its charter, which might require a concerted military response.
The current team was created in a memo signed by Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s national security adviser, on Feb. 28, four days after the invasion began, according to officials involved in the process, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive planning. An earlier iteration had spent months behind the scenes preparing the US government for the likelihood of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
That team played a pivotal role in drafting deep sanctions plans, building troops in NATO countries and arming the Ukrainian military, which has exploited Russia’s weaknesses and put enormous pressure on the government and economy.
Mr Stoltenberg, sounding much more aggressive than in the past, said he expected “allies will agree to additional support, including cybersecurity assistance and equipment to help protect Ukraine against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.”
When Mr Biden flew to Europe on Wednesday, both he and Mr Stoltenberg warned of growing evidence that Russia was, in fact, preparing to use chemical weapons in Ukraine.
These are questions Europe has not faced since the depths of the Cold War, when NATO had far fewer members and Western Europe was concerned about a Soviet attack on Germany. Few of the leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday have ever faced those scenarios — and many have never had to think about nuclear deterrence or the effects of the detonation of nuclear weapons on the battlefield, designed to be less powerful than those who destroyed Hiroshima. The fear is that Russia will be more likely to use those weapons precisely because they erode the distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons.
Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who heads the Armed Services Committee, said on Wednesday that if Mr Putin used a weapon of mass destruction — chemical, biological or nuclear — “there would be consequences,” even if the use of the weapon would be limited to Ukraine. Mr Reed said radiation from, say, a nuclear weapon could penetrate a neighboring NATO country and be considered an attack on a NATO member.
“It’s going to be a very difficult decision, but it’s a decision that not just the president but the entire NATO Council will have to make,” Mr Reed told reporters, referring to the Western alliance’s governing body.
“The bottom line is that this is a NATO decision,” said Mr Reed. “It won’t just be the president’s decision. I don’t think he would want to take unilateral action.”
A key issue the Tiger Team is looking at is the barrier that could prompt the alliance to use military force in Ukraine. Biden has made it clear that he is extremely reluctant to do so, fearing that a direct confrontation with Russia could escalate the conflict out of control. “That’s World War III,” he remarked recently.
A second team of officials, also formed by Mr. Sullivan of Feb. 28, looks at long-term opportunities for the United States to improve its geopolitical position as a result of Mr. Putin. In the White House, it has become an article of faith that the Russian leader has made a huge strategic mistake — one that will tarnish Russia’s reputation, cripple its economy and alienate potential allies for years. But it’s still early in the conflict, other officials warn, and that conclusion may be premature.
The immediate concern is what Mr Putin might do next — driven by a desire to salvage a failing military effort or restore its credentials as a fighting force to be feared.
Officials say it is unlikely that Mr Putin will resort to detonating a nuclear weapon. But Russia’s steady stream of reminders that it has its arsenal at the ready and could use it in response to anything it sees as an “existential threat” has put Washington on edge.
Biden will talk to allies about “how to deal with the rhetoric and commentary coming out of Russia on this whole issue of the potential use of nuclear weapons,” Sullivan told reporters on Wednesday.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
“We haven’t seen anything that changes our attitude, our nuclear stance, but of course it is something that we must continue to work in close consultation with allies and partners, and also communicate directly with the Russians.”
Several officials said the White House and the Pentagon have had some tension about how much detail the Defense Department is willing to share about its top-secret war planning — especially regarding responses to any use of nuclear weapons — even in the secretive setting of the Tiger. Team. (The term has been used for many years to describe an emergency task force within the National Security Council.)
A US official said Mr Biden remained adamant about keeping US troops out of Ukraine. But the official said the government believed it would be misleading not to scrutinize any thresholds below which the president would roll over, or to be prepared to deal with the consequences of using weapons of mass destruction.
A senior government official said any use of a “small” tactical nuclear bomb by Russia — even within Ukraine and not targeting a NATO member — would mean “all bets are off” that the United States and NATO will stay out of the war. But when pressed, the official refused to elaborate on the answers discussed.
The official said US and NATO intelligence had not seen any activity by Russian military officials suggesting preparations were being made to use a nuclear weapon. But he said government officials urged caution during internal discussions because there was more at stake than just Ukraine.
If Mr Putin were to deliberately attack a NATO country, he would not only exert the strength of the military alliance on Russia, but would likely face NATO forces in Ukraine, Artis Pabriks, Latvia’s defense minister, told reporters traveling in his country this month with General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“He gets Article 5,” Pabriks said, referring to NATO’s promise that an attack on one alliance member is an attack on all.
“If he gets that, in principle we would also be involved in Ukraine,” Pabriks said, adding: “He has no way out there. So I think he shouldn’t be so stupid.”
Maine Senator Angus King, an independent and member of the Senate intelligence and armed forces committees, visited the Polish-Ukrainian border this weekend, met officials from allied countries, visited a refugee shelter and spoke with Ukrainians. Mr King said that while the Russian armed forces struggle to make progress, Mr Putin could try to negotiate a diplomatic agreement, intensify his bombardment of Ukrainian cities and raze them to the ground, or lash out against the West. with a cyber attack.
“The fourth is escalate to de-escalate, which is a tactical nuclear weapon,” Mr King said, using the term for a Russian military doctrine in which it would use a nuclear weapon as a warning — and then negotiate.
David E. Sanger reported from Brussels, and Eric Schmitt† Helene Cooper and Julian Barnes from Washington.