‘Armageddon’ warning reflects Biden’s instincts about Putin

President Biden’s warning this week that Russia’s threats to use nuclear weapons was the most serious “armageddon possibility in 60 years” was not based on any new intelligence or information gathered by the government, US officials said Friday, but on Biden’s own assessment. What is Russian President Vladimir Putin capable of?

Biden and other US officials have expressed concern in recent weeks that Putin will adopt increasingly tough measures as the war worsens for Moscow, said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

US officials stressed on Friday that they saw no evidence that Russia had taken the necessary steps to use nuclear weapons and that there was no reason for the United States to change its nuclear posture. But several officials said Putin took the threats seriously, and the United States has engaged in direct back-channel conversations with the Russians about the consequences of taking steps such as using nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

“We have seen no reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture and we have received no indication that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons,” White House press secretary Carine Jean-Pierre said Friday. “The kind of irresponsible rhetoric we’ve seen is no way for the leader of a nuclear-armed nation to speak, and the president was making that very clear,” she added.

By saying this, Biden surprised many Americans Thursday night for a fundraiser Putin, whom he knows “fairly well,” “wasn’t joking when he talked about the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons.” He added, “I don’t think there is an ability to do it easily [use] A strategic nuke will not end with Armageddon. “

Biden suggested the threat was reminiscent of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the United States and the Soviet Union came close to nuclear conflict during the Cold War.

“I mean it obviously weighs heavily on President Biden, and we can all intellectually say that the risk of nuclear weapons use is low, but the reality is that the risk has increased,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, senior fellow. and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

“On a very human level, he now has the potential to be a president who will have to manage nuclear use for the first time in 70 years,” Kendall-Taylor said. “I probably would have preferred not to use the phrase ‘nuclear … Armageddon,’ but I think it’s helpful for the president and the administration to have a conversation with the public about the risks.”

Why does the world care about Putin’s strategic nukes?

Biden’s comments reflect his long-standing distrust of Putin and his understanding of what Putin is willing to do to achieve his goals, U.S. officials and outside experts said. His suspicions of Putin began long before he became president — and long before Putin became the United States’ greatest enemy.

Biden’s dim understanding of Putin dates back to at least 2001, when President George W. Bush met the Russian leader for the first time shortly after taking office. While Bush heaped praise on him – describing him as “very straightforward and reliable” – Biden, then a senator from Delaware, disagreed, saying he did not trust Putin.

Biden, who has focused on foreign policy throughout his career and chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, places a high value on his own tendencies and assessments when assessing foreign leaders and the landscape. During his presidential campaign, he often recounted how many foreign leaders he had personally met, for example citing a long trip he took with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Biden’s mention of “Armageddon” was his most vivid warning, yet the president has been raising alarm for weeks over Putin’s actions in Ukraine, including holding fake referendums on four Ukrainian regions and then annexing them. inside Speech to the United Nations General Assembly last monthBiden directly addressed the referendum and nuclear threats, saying Moscow had “brazenly” violated the UN Charter by invading its neighbor with force.

“Just today, President Putin has made nuclear threats against Europe, with reckless disregard for nonproliferation regime responsibilities,” Biden said. “A nuclear war cannot be won. And never fight. “

Annexation brings nuclear war closer

Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons since the beginning of the conflict in February, but officials have said they have long recognized that the risk of such an attack would increase if Putin’s military position in Ukraine were to falter. In recent weeks, the Ukrainian army launched a counterattack and achieved considerable success on the battlefield.

But US officials were at pains on Friday to emphasize that anything they have seen on the ground in recent days has led them to expect a possible nuclear attack in the short term.

“We are doing contingency planning for various scenarios throughout the conflict,” a senior State Department official said. “But we saw no reason to adjust our strategic nuclear posture.”

Deputy State Department spokesman Vedant Patel added, “We see no reason to adjust our own nuclear posture, and we have no indication that Russia is preparing to use weapons immediately.”

Other senior U.S. officials said they believed any movement of Russian nuclear warheads would not only be detected by different surveillance methods, but would require detectable internal coordination and could be seen by U.S. surveillance in real time.

Still, many officials admit that such methods are never 100 percent certain.

Asked Sunday if the United States would actively go to war if Putin used nuclear weapons, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN, “I’ve said before that we’ve had an opportunity to have a direct conversation with Russia. Nuclear weapons and what kind of actions the United States will take. I have said before that we will not telegraph these things publicly.”

Some leaders suggested Friday that Biden’s comments were unnecessarily inflammatory. French President Emmanuel Macron said “we must speak with discretion” on issues such as nuclear weapons.

Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, also questioned Biden’s tone, saying U.S. officials would be better off making limited, quiet statements in response to Putin’s nuclear threats.

“When you get into that kind of language about ‘Armageddon’ and ‘World War III’ as an official, I think you’re raising concerns without really addressing the threat,” Lewis said. “The primary message conveyed by the White House at this point is strength and confidence.”

Still, he added, Putin can always miscalculate, even if the White House’s messages are innocent. “Even if they do it perfectly, he’s going to risk getting them wrong, because he’s already done it with Zelensky,” Lewis said.

Other European officials noted that Putin is unpredictable and dangerous, saying that Russian defeats on the battlefield are creating a kind of pressure that he has rarely faced before. Putin’s plan did not go to war for several months, and he resorted to more brazen and far-reaching measures to contain his losses.

After a failed push into Kyiv, Russian forces withdrew from the Ukrainian capital in early April and refocused efforts to take more territory in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, known as the Donbass.

Again the group turned the conflict into a conventional artillery battle. Russian forces captured new towns and cities in June and July, at a desperate moment for Ukrainian forces, who found themselves defeated by Russian long-range artillery.

But the United States and other European allies armed the Ukrainians with more sophisticated weapons, including US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), and found ways to alleviate some of the ammunition shortages and help level the playing field.

By the time Kiev launched a counteroffensive in late August, Putin’s forces had suffered significant losses and lacked the manpower to defend such a vast area. Russia’s frontline defenses in the Kharkiv region collapsed rapidly, and Ukrainian forces rapidly regained thousands of square miles, unbalancing Moscow.

In recent weeks, as Ukrainian forces pushed forward, Putin took a step that US intelligence sources said he would try to avoid at all costs: ordering a partial military mobilization of up to 300,000 reservists. Putin was initially reluctant to take the step, knowing it could undermine domestic support for the war, and the announcement prompted many Russian men to flee the country to avoid conscription.

At the same time, Putin pushed forward the sham referendum and annexation timeline, declaring that people living in the annexed territory would remain “our permanent citizens” and warning that the land now belonged to Russia and would be protected as it was. In any other part of the country.

This urgency – some say desperation – created the background for Putin to escalate his nuclear threats. Some analysts say the Russian president may see the United States and Europe as a way to make Ukraine think twice about provoking the Kremlin to use weapons of mass destruction.

“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will use all available means to defend Russia and our people,” Putin said on September 21.

Ukrainian forces are nevertheless advancing into territory that Putin now claims as Russia. In a fiery speech last Friday marking the formal annexation of Ukrainian territories, Putin warned that the US had “set a precedent” when it used nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945.

“President Biden has a really good pulse on Putin and understands what Putin is capable of,” Kendall-Taylor said. “Unlike many Western leaders, he understands it deeply, and that makes this moment more serious in his eyes.”

John Hudson contributed to this report.

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