The Sum of All Fears: US Faces Bleak Options as Putin Turns Agressive on Nukes

Vlad Putin (L) Joe Biden
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U.S. officials are walking a careful line in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest suggestion that he may be willing to resort to nuclear weapons.

Following Putin’s thinly-veiled reference to the nuclear option in remarks last week, Biden administration officials have said they are taking the comments seriously, while trying to avoid escalating the situation with more bellicose rhetoric.

The Kremlin’s announcement, which also detailed aggressive new steps to try and turn the tide of the war in Ukraine back in Moscow’s favor, has U.S. officials caught between a bleak set of options with Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling.

“We have communicated to the Russians what the consequences would be, but we’ve been careful in how we talk about this publicly because, from our perspective, we want to lay down the principle that there would be catastrophic consequences, but not engage in a game of rhetorical tit for tat,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday on ABC.

Putin last week said Moscow was prepared to use nuclear weapons to defend any of its territory, accusing the U.S. and its allies of “nuclear blackmail” and moving to “destroy” his country.

“I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction, and some components are more modern than those of the NATO countries,” Putin claimed in a nationally televised address.

The White House has said it has not seen a reason to adjust its nuclear posture in response to Putin’s comments. U.S. officials have instead tried to balance forceful calls for Russia not to escalate the conflict with a desire to keep conversations with Moscow private.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told “60 Minutes” in an interview broadcast Sunday that Putin was using “irresponsible rhetoric.” He also reiterated that the White House has publicly and privately cautioned Moscow against resorting to nuclear weapons.

Blinken would not get into the specifics of the U.S. message or strategy, but he said the administration does have a plan should Russia deploy nuclear armaments.

“President Biden has been determined that as we’re doing everything we can to help the Ukrainians defend themselves, as we’re doing everything we can to rally other countries to put pressure on Russia, we’re also determined that this war not expand, not get broader,” Blinken said when asked if it was a plan to “prevent World War III.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Monday refused to get into what the potential response would be if Russia used nuclear weapons, following the lead of President Biden and the secretary of State in recent weeks when asked about the consequences.

Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday confirmed that Moscow was in contact with Washington on nuclear issues, but said it was “very sporadic” dialogue.

“There are channels of interaction between the Russian Federation and the United States, they are very sporadic, but they allow you to bring emergency messages about each other’s position,” Peskov told state-run Russian media, referring to Sullivan’s statement.

Much speculation has also been given as to the exact kind of weapon Putin is brandishing. There are fears the Russian leader could resort to using tactical nuclear weapons, also known as nonstrategic nuclear weapons, which are meant to win a battle. Strategic, or long-range, nuclear weapons, meanwhile, are designed to end a war, much like when the Allies dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

A major issue, however, is that nuclear technology has advanced greatly, with Russia and U.S. both owning tactical weapons in their arsenals that would do far more damage that the bombs used nearly 80 years ago.

Then-Defense Secretary James Mattis in 2018 said he didn’t believe “there’s any such thing as a ‘tactical nuclear weapon.’ Any nuclear weapon used at any time is a strategic game changer.”

What’s more, the icy relationship between the two nations only underscores the risks in play as administration officials seek to bluntly warn Russia of consequences without escalating an already fraught situation.

“I think Putin has been very clever in keeping the west on edge with his nuclear threats. The west reacts very excitedly to these threats, and I think reads more into them than they should. But I think it’s worked to his advantage,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Cancian said U.S. officials have thus far taken the proper course in using strategic ambiguity to respond, putting Russia on notice without creating wider panic by pledging a military response to any use of nuclear weapons.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst, meanwhile, agreed that Washington’s messaging to Moscow over the last week has been solid, with no sign that Putin’s warnings have deterred the West from continuing to provide weapons to Ukraine.

“It seems that we have said to the Russians ‘don’t do it. If you do, our response is going to be devastating. You’re not going to like it.’ That’s good,” Herbst told The Hill Monday.

“Putin, the lifelong KGB officer, knows how to play psychological games. … So he has skillfully built this image to scare us out of our pants and not defend our interests,” Herbst said, adding, “we cannot afford to fall for that.”

Herbst suggested that the U.S. could try to rope in other nations as a lobbying effort to privately try to sway Putin from nuclear force, including China and India.

“The Chinese are clearly not our friends, but they have expressed unhappiness with Putin’s, at this point, failed war in Ukraine,” he said. “I imagine the Chinese would not be thrilled if Putin were to use weapons of mass destruction. So we should have a conversation with the Chinese and for that matter, the Indians to have them — obviously only in private — urge the Russians not to do this.”

The latest round of talk of Russia’s use of nuclear weapons comes roughly seven months after Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine. The Russian president hinted shortly after the start of the war that nuclear weapons could come into play. The U.S. government in March said it was not adjusting its nuclear posture in response to those comments.

But Putin’s mention of nuclear weapons last week comes as he has dug in his heels in response to a Ukrainian counteroffensive that pushed back Russian forces and took back control of key cities.

Putin said nuclear weapons could be in play to respond to any invasion or attack on the Russian homeland, leaving some to wonder if he was referring to autonomous areas of Ukraine that Moscow has laid claim to via manipulated referendums.

In the same taped address where he referenced nuclear war, Putin called for the conscription of hundreds of thousands of military-age men. That move has led to viral footage of Russian men leaving their families, pushback from lawmakers and protests from civilians.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an interview with “Face The Nation,” pointed to Russia’s occupation of nuclear facilities in Ukraine and Putin’s past rhetoric as cause to take him seriously when he dangles the threat of nuclear warfare.

“I don’t think he’s bluffing,” Zelensky said. “I think the world is deterring it and containing this threat. We need to keep putting pressure on him and not allow him to continue.”

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