November 2, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu chairs a meeting at the National Defence Control Centre in Moscow, Russia, on November 1. Russian Defence Ministry/Reuters

Russian military officials have discussed how and under what conditions Russia would use a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield in Ukraine, according to a US intelligence assessment described to CNN by multiple sources who have read it.

The assessment, drafted by the National Intelligence Council, is not a high confidence product and is not raw intelligence but rather analysis, multiple people who have read it told CNN. For that reason, some officials believe the conversations reflected in the document may have been taken out of context, and do not necessarily indicate that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon.

The US has still not seen any signs that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to take the drastic step of using one, officials said, and Putin is not believed to have been involved in the discussions described in the NIC product.

But others within the administration who have viewed the document have reacted with concern, because it provides a rare window into conversations between senior Russian generals and reveals their intensifying frustration about Russia’s losses on the battlefield in Ukraine. That frustration could turn into desperation, some officials fear. There are also questions about whether Russia’s self-declared annexation of eastern Ukraine earlier this year means Russia is willing to take more extreme measures to protect that territory.

Some more context: The US has also been watching Russia’s actions around the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, which Ukrainian forces are trying to take back from Russian forces in a counteroffensive. In recent weeks, Russian officials have ordered the city to be evacuated, and the US is concerned that if Ukraine drives the Russians out in a humiliating defeat, it could be the kind of trigger that would lead Putin to resort to tactical nukes. It’s among the scenarios envisioned by the intelligence assessment, although officials emphasized that Kherson is not the sole focus of the product.

The New York Times first reported on the intelligence assessment. But the internal divisions over the quality of the intelligence and how to interpret it has not been previously reported.

CNN’s Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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