US President Joe Biden says the risk of nuclear “Armageddon” is at the highest level since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, as Russian officials speak of the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons after suffering massive setbacks in the eight-month invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking on Thursday (US time) at a fundraiser for the Democratic senatorial campaign committee, Mr Biden said Russian President Vladimir Putin was “a guy I know fairly well” and the Russian leader was “not joking when he talks about the use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons”.
“We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Mr Biden said.
He suggested the threat from Mr Putin was real “because his military is – you might say – significantly underperforming”.
US officials for months have warned of the prospect that Russia could use weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine as it has faced a series of strategic setbacks on the battlefield. As recently as this week, despite Mr Biden’s candidate remarks on Thursday, they said they saw no change to Russia’s nuclear forces that would require a change in the alert posture of US nuclear forces.
“We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture, nor do we have indication that Russia is preparing to imminently use nuclear weapons,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday.
However experts view a US strike as a potential option it must prepare for, given Russia’s struggle in Ukraine and as Moscow annexes more territory.
“This nuclear sabre-rattling is reckless and irresponsible,” Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Pat Ryder said earlier on Thursday.
“As I’ve mentioned before, at this stage, we do not have any information to cause us to change our strategic deterrence posture, and we don’t assess that President Putin has made a decision to use nuclear weapons at this time.”
Mr Biden also challenged Russian nuclear doctrine, warning that the use of a lower-yield tactical weapon could quickly spiral out of control into global destruction.
“I don’t there is any such a thing as the ability to easily use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon,” Mr Biden said.
Speaking to Democratic donors, Mr Biden said he was still “trying to figure” out Mr Putin’s “off-ramp” in Ukraine.
“Where does he find a way out?” Mr Biden said.
“Where does he find himself in a position that he does not not only lose face but lose significant power within Russia?”
Mr Putin has repeatedly alluded to using his country’s vast nuclear arsenal, including three weeks ago when he announced plans to conscript Russian men to serve in Ukraine.
“I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction … and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” Mr Putin said on September 21, adding with a lingering stare at the camera: “It’s not a bluff.”
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said last week the US had been “clear” to Russia about what the “consequences” of using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine would be.
“This is something that we are attuned to, taking very seriously, and communicating directly with Russia about, including the kind of decisive responses the United States would have if they went down that dark road,” Mr Sullivan said.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky said earlier on Thursday that Mr Putin understood that the “world will never forgive” a Russian nuclear strike.
“He understands that after the use of nuclear weapons he would be unable any more to preserve, so to speak, his life, and I’m confident of that,” Mr Zelensky said.
– with AAP
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