President Biden was standing in an Higher East Facet townhouse owned by the businessman James Murdoch, the rebellious scion of the media empire, surrounded by liberal New York Democrats who had paid handsomely to come back hear optimistic discuss in regards to the Biden agenda for the subsequent few years.

It was Oct. 6, 2022, however what they heard as a substitute that night was a disturbing message that — although Mr. Biden didn’t say so — got here straight from extremely labeled intercepted communications he had just lately been briefed about, suggesting that President Vladimir V. Putin’s threats to make use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine is perhaps turning into an operational plan.

For the “first time for the reason that Cuban Missile Disaster,” he advised the group, as they gathered amid Mr. Murdoch’s artwork assortment, “we’ve got a direct risk of the usage of a nuclear weapon if actually issues proceed down the trail they’ve been going.” The gravity of his tone started to sink in: The president was speaking in regards to the prospect of the primary wartime use of a nuclear weapon since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And never at some obscure second sooner or later. He meant within the subsequent few weeks.

The intercepts revealed that for the primary time for the reason that struggle in Ukraine had damaged out, there have been frequent conversations inside the Russian navy about reaching into the nuclear arsenal. Some have been simply “varied types of chatter,” one official mentioned. However others concerned the models that will be answerable for transferring or deploying the weapons. Essentially the most alarming of the intercepts revealed that one of the crucial senior Russian navy commanders was explicitly discussing the logistics of detonating a weapon on the battlefield.

Happily, Mr. Biden was advised in his briefings, there was no proof of weapons being moved. However quickly the C.I.A. was warning that, underneath a singular situation by which Ukrainian forces decimated Russian defensive traces and regarded as if they could attempt to retake Crimea — a risk that appeared possible that fall — the chance of nuclear use may rise to 50 p.c and even greater. That “acquired everybody’s consideration quick,” mentioned an official concerned within the discussions.

Nobody knew the way to assess the accuracy of that estimate: the elements that play into choices to make use of nuclear weapons, and even to threaten their use, have been too summary, too depending on human emotion and accident, to measure with precision. However it wasn’t the type of warning any American president might dismiss.

“It’s the nuclear paradox,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Employees till he retired in September, advised me over dinner final summer time at his official quarters above the Potomac River, recalling the warnings he had issued within the State of affairs Room.

He added: “The extra profitable the Ukrainians are at ousting the Russian invasion, the extra seemingly Putin is to threaten to make use of a bomb — or attain for it.”

This account of what occurred in these October days — because it occurred, simply earlier than the sixtieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Disaster, the closest the US and the Soviet Union ever got here to a nuclear change within the Chilly Battle — was reconstructed in interviews I performed over the previous 18 months with administration officers, diplomats, leaders of NATO nations and navy officers who recounted the depth of their worry in these weeks.

Although the disaster handed, and Russia now seems to have gained an higher hand on the battlefield as Ukraine runs low on ammunition, virtually the entire officers described these weeks as a glimpse of a terrifying new period by which nuclear weapons have been again on the heart of superpower competitors.

Whereas news that Russia was considering using a nuclear weapon became public at the time, the interviews underscored that the troubles on the White Home and the Pentagon ran far deeper than have been acknowledged then, and that in depth efforts have been made to organize for the chance. When Mr. Biden mused aloud that night that “I don’t suppose there’s any such factor as the flexibility to simply” make use of “a tactical nuclear weapon and never find yourself with Armageddon,” he was reflecting pressing preparations being made for a U.S. response. Different particulars of in depth White Home planning have been revealed Saturday by Jim Sciutto of CNN.

Mr. Biden mentioned he thought Mr. Putin was able to pulling the set off. “We’ve acquired a man I do know pretty nicely,” he mentioned of the Russian chief. “He isn’t joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or organic or chemical weapons as a result of his navy is, you may say, considerably underperforming.”

Since then, the battlefield benefit has modified dramatically, and October 2022 now appears to be like just like the high-water mark of Ukraine’s navy efficiency over the previous two years. But Mr. Putin has now made a brand new set of nuclear threats, throughout his equal of the State of the Union tackle in Moscow in late February. He mentioned that any NATO nations that have been serving to Ukraine strike Russian territory with cruise missiles, or which may contemplate sending their very own troops into battle, “should, ultimately, perceive” that “all this really threatens a battle with the usage of nuclear weapons, and subsequently the destruction of civilization.”

“We also have weapons that can strike targets on their territory,” Mr. Putin mentioned. “Do they not perceive this?”

Mr. Putin was talking about Russian medium-range weapons that might strike anyplace in Europe, or his intercontinental ballistic missiles that may attain the US. However the scare in 2022 concerned so-called battlefield nukes: tactical weapons sufficiently small to be loaded into an artillery shell and designed to eviscerate a navy unit or just a few metropolis blocks.

At the least initially, their use would look nothing like an all-out nuclear change, the good worry of the Chilly Battle. The consequences could be horrific however restricted to a comparatively small geographic space — maybe detonated over the Black Sea, or blasted right into a Ukrainian navy base.

But the White Home concern ran so deep that activity forces met to map out a response. Administration officers mentioned that the US’ countermove must be nonnuclear. However they rapidly added that there must be some type of dramatic response — maybe even a traditional assault on the models that had launched the nuclear weapons — or they might threat emboldening not solely Mr. Putin however each different authoritarian with a nuclear arsenal, massive or small.

But as was made clear in Mr. Biden’s “Armageddon speech” — as White Home officers got here to name it — nobody knew what sort of nuclear demonstration Mr. Putin had in thoughts. Some believed that the general public warnings Russia was making that Ukraine was getting ready to make use of an enormous “soiled bomb,” a weapon that spews radiological waste, was a pretext for a pre-emptive nuclear strike.

The wargaming on the Pentagon and at suppose tanks round Washington imagined that Mr. Putin’s use of a tactical weapon — maybe adopted by a risk to detonate extra — might are available in quite a lot of circumstances. One simulation envisioned a profitable Ukrainian counteroffensive that imperiled Mr. Putin’s maintain on Crimea. One other concerned a requirement from Moscow that the West halt all navy assist for the Ukrainians: no extra tanks, no extra missiles, no extra ammunition. The purpose could be to separate NATO; within the tabletop simulation I used to be permitted to look at, the detonation served that goal.

To forestall nuclear use, within the days round Mr. Biden’s fund-raiser look Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken known as his Russian counterpart, as did Protection Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and the nationwide safety adviser, Jake Sullivan. Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, was occurring a deliberate go to to Beijing; he was prepped to transient Xi Jinping, China’s president, in regards to the intelligence and urge him to make each private and non-private statements to Russia warning that there was no place within the Ukraine battle for the usage of nuclear weapons. Mr. Xi made the general public assertion; it’s unclear what, if something, he signaled in non-public.

Mr. Biden, in the meantime, despatched a message to Mr. Putin that they needed to arrange an pressing assembly of emissaries. Mr. Putin despatched Sergei Naryshkin, head of the S.V.R., the Russian international intelligence service that had pulled off the Photo voltaic Winds assault, an ingenious cyberattack that had struck a large swath of U.S. authorities departments and company America. Mr. Biden selected William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director and former U.S. ambassador to Russia, who’s now his go-to troubleshooter for quite a lot of the hardest nationwide safety issues, most just lately getting a brief cease-fire and the discharge of hostages held by Hamas.

Mr. Burns advised me that the 2 males noticed one another on a mid-November day in 2022. However whereas Mr. Burns arrived to warn what would befall Russia if it used a nuclear weapon, Mr. Naryshkin apparently thought the C.I.A. director had been despatched to barter an armistice settlement that will finish the struggle. He advised Mr. Burns that any such negotiation needed to start with an understanding that Russia would get to maintain any land that was at present underneath its management.

It took a while for Mr. Burns to disabuse Mr. Naryshkin of the concept that the US was able to commerce away Ukrainian territory for peace. Lastly, they turned to the subject Mr. Burns had traveled all over the world to debate: what the US and its allies have been ready to do to Russia if Mr. Putin made good on his nuclear threats.

“I made it clear,” Mr. Burns later recalled from his seventh-floor workplace on the C.I.A., that “there could be clear penalties for Russia.” Simply how particular Mr. Burns was in regards to the nature of the American response was left murky by American officers. He needed to be detailed sufficient to discourage a Russian assault, however keep away from telegraphing Mr. Biden’s actual response.

“Naryshkin swore that he understood and that Putin didn’t intend to make use of a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Burns mentioned.

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