The head of GCHQ has said the UK spy agency has not seen any indicators that Russia is preparing to use a tactical nuclear weapon in or around Ukraine despite recent bellicose statements from Vladimir Putin.
Jeremy Fleming, speaking on Tuesday morning, said it was one of GCHQ’s tasks to monitor whether the Kremlin was taking any of the preliminary steps needed before a tactical weapon was being made ready.
“The way in which the Russian military machine and President Putin are conducting this war, they are staying within the doctrine that we understand for their use, including for nuclear weapons,” Fleming said.
But he added that there was no sign that Russia was engaged in any technical preparatory steps: “I would hope that we would see indicators if they started to go down that path,” the spy chief said in a BBC interview.
So-called tactical nuclear weapons – which can have the destructive power about six times greater than the Hiroshima bomb – are assembled by pairing a nuclear warhead with a conventional missile with a shorter-range nuclear warhead.
They are different from the long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are controlled by Russia, the US and other nuclear powers and can be deployed rapidly for the purpose of striking against each other in an uncontrolled war.
Experts say it takes time to move such warheads out of storage and it should be possible for a spy agency such as GCHQ or its US counterpart, the NSA, to monitor such movements.
“It’s a visible process,” said Pavel Podvig, a Russian nuclear expert and senior research fellow at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. “If it’s really rushed you are talking about hours. It will be visible and be made visible.”
Last month Putin said he would use “all available means” to defend Russian territory, including parts of Ukraine that he had unilaterally sought to annex – and argued the atomic bombs dropped in 1945 by the US “created a precedent”.
That prompted the US president, Joe Biden, to warn last week that the world was closer to Armageddon than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 – although aides said subsequently his comments were not based on fresh intelligence or information.
Fleming’s remarks precede a speech he is due to give on Tuesday afternoon, in which he will accuse Putin of making strategic errors in his pursuit of the war in Ukraine, partly because there are so few restraints on his leadership.
“Far from the inevitable Russian military victory that their propaganda machine spouted, it is clear that Ukraine’s courageous action on the battlefield and in cyberspace is turning the tide,” Fleming will say.
Focusing on the Russian president directly, Fleming is expected to say that “with little effective internal challenge, his decision-making has proved flawed” and that he has engaged in “a high-stakes strategy that is leading to strategic errors in judgment”.
On Monday, Moscow launched a wave of missile strikes aimed at Kyiv and other urban centres, killing at least 11 people, which Putin said was in response to the weekend bombing of the bridge connecting occupied Crimea to Russia.