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U.S. officials say Russian commanders discussed possible nuclear weapons use in Ukraine

Russian setbacks pile up in Ukraine invasion
More signs Russia's invasion of Ukraine is unraveling 02:35

Two U.S. officials confirmed to CBS News on Wednesday that senior Russian military officials discussed in mid-October how and when they might use nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine. The intelligence concerned U.S. officials because the relevant discussions came not long after Russian President Vladimir Putin, seeing Ukrainian forces claw territory back from his troops, hinted that he could resort to nuclear weapons.

Putin warned in late September that he would "certainly use all the means at our disposal" to defend Russian territory.

Asked about the U.S. intelligence on Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed it as "purposeful pumping" of nuclear weapons rhetoric. 

"We have not the slightest intention to take part in this pumping, and consider it very, very irresponsible," Peskov told reporters in Moscow.

The discussions among Russian officials, first reported by the New York Times, were not detailed by the U.S. officials who confirmed the intelligence to CBS News.

In a statement shared with CBS News, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said he couldn't provide "any comment on the particulars of this reporting," but said the U.S. had been "clear from the outset that Russia's comments about the potential use of nuclear weapons are deeply concerning, and we take them seriously."

The talk within the Russian military came as Moscow claimed, without offering any evidence, that Ukraine was preparing to use a radioactive "dirty bomb." Ukraine and its Western partners dismissed the claim as a bid by Russia to create a pretext to blame Ukraine for its own possible use of such a device.

Russia holds nuclear drills amid "dirty bomb" claim 02:03

A dirty bomb is a device that uses conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material. They are not generally weapons stocked by national military forces, but more often associated with terrorism. Their use is, however, hypothetical: A dirty bomb has never been detonated in an attack, but they have been tested. Their size and lethality depends entirely on the potency and quantity of the radioactive and explosives materials used.

Since the intelligence about the unidentified Russians' conversations first came to light, concern within the U.S. government has eased, principally, one American official told CBS News, because the Russians' own rhetoric has been dialed back.

Putin was not said to have been part of the conversations, and Kirby and the U.S. officials who spoke to CBS News on the condition of anonymity said there were no indications that Russia was then or is now making preparations to use a nuclear weapon. 

Fears that Putin — who makes all final decisions about Russian military deployments and operations — could order the use of any kind of nuclear weapon in Ukraine increased last month as his invading forces were dealt a series of defeats, retreating from a number of villages and towns in regions of eastern Ukraine that Putin has declared Russian territory.

His unilateral annexation of four eastern Ukrainian regions at the end of September has been dismissed by the United Nations and most of the global community as an illegal landgrab.

Putin's mobilization sparks violent opposition 02:17

In addition to his battlefield losses, there were also indications last month of discontent within Russia.

As Ukraine's troops advanced and a hastily-called military mobilization sent hundreds of young Russian men running for Russia's borders to avoid serving in Ukraine, and hundreds more who were drafted sent to the front lines with inadequate training and equipment, senior Russian officials started voicing rare public concern over the trajectory of Putin's war.

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