‘Armageddon’ warning reflects Biden’s take on Putin’s character

President Biden’s warning this week that Russia’s threats to use nuclear weapons posed the “worst prospect of Armageddon in 60 years” was not based on any new intelligence or information gathered by the government, U.S. officials said Friday, but more on Biden’s own assessment. which Russian President Vladimir Putin might be capable of.

Biden and other U.S. officials have expressed concerns in recent weeks that with the war continuing to turn bad for Moscow, Putin would resort to increasingly drastic measures, a senior administration official said, who , like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

US officials stressed on Friday that they had seen no evidence that Russia had taken the necessary steps to use its nuclear arsenal and that the United States had no reason to change its nuclear posture. But several officials said they took Putin’s threats seriously and said the United States was engaged in direct conversations with the Russians about the repercussions of measures such as the use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. .

“We have seen no reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture, nor do we have any indications that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons imminently,” the press secretary said on Friday. of the White House, Karine Jean-Pierre. She added: “The kind of irresponsible rhetoric we’ve seen is no way for the head of a nuclear weapon state to speak, and that’s what the president has made very clear.”

Biden surprised many Americans by saying at a Thursday night fundraiser that Putin, whom he knows “fairly well”, “wasn’t kidding when he talked about the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons”. He added: “I don’t think there is such a thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuke and not end up with Armageddon.

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

“My feeling is that this clearly weighs heavily on President Biden, and we can all intellectually say that the risk of nuclear weapons being used is low, but the reality is that the risk has increased,” Andrea Kendall said. Taylor, Principal Investigator. 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 has to deal with nuclear use for the first time in 70 years,” Kendall-Taylor said. “I might have preferred that he not 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 risk.”

Why the world cares about Putin’s tactical nukes

Biden’s comments reflected the long-standing mistrust he harbored against Putin and his understanding of what Putin is willing to do to achieve his goals, U.S. officials and outside experts said. His skepticism of Putin began long before he became president – ​​and long before Putin became one of America’s greatest adversaries.

Biden’s gloomy assessment of Putin dates back at least to 2001, when President George W. Bush first met the Russian leader shortly after taking office. While Bush praised him – describing him as “very straightforward and trustworthy” – Biden, then a senator from Delaware, disagreed, saying he didn’t trust Putin.

Biden, who has focused on foreign policy throughout his career and chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, places great value on his own instincts and assessments when it comes to evaluating leaders and leaders. foreign landscapes. During his presidential campaign, he often spoke about the number of foreign leaders he had personally met, citing for example the long trips he had made with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

While Biden’s mention of ‘Armageddon’ was his strongest warning yet, the president has been sounding the alarm for weeks over Putin’s actions in Ukraine, including his staging of sham referendums in four Ukrainian territories, then by annexing them. In a speech at the UN General Assembly last monthBiden addressed the referendums and nuclear threats directly, saying Moscow had “shamelessly” violated the heart of the UN charter by forcefully invading its neighbor.

“Even today, President Putin made overt nuclear threats against Europe in reckless disregard of the responsibilities of the nonproliferation regime,” Biden said. “A nuclear war cannot be won. And should never be fought.

Annexations bring nuclear war closer

Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons since the start of the conflict in February, but officials said they have long recognized that the threat of such a strike would increase if Putin’s military position became jeopardized in Ukraine. In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces have launched a counter-offensive and made significant gains on the battlefield.

But U.S. officials were at pains Friday to stress that nothing they’ve seen on the ground in recent days has led them to expect a possible near-term nuclear strike.

“We have made contingency plans for a wide range of scenarios throughout the conflict,” a senior State Department official said. “But we saw no reason to adjust our strategic nuclear posture.”

State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel added, “We have seen no reason to adjust our own nuclear posture, and we have no indication that Russia is preparing to use weapons of imminent way”.

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

Yet a number of officials have acknowledged that such methods are never 100% secure.

When asked on Sunday whether the United States would actively go to war if Putin used a nuclear weapon, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN: “I’ve said before that we’ve had the opportunity to communicate directly to Russia a series of consequences for the use of nuclear weapons and the types of actions the United States would take.I also said before that we were not going to telegraph these things publicly.

Some leaders suggested Friday that Biden’s comments were unnecessarily provocative. French President Emmanuel Macron said “we must speak with caution” 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 it would be best if US officials made limited, calm statements in response to Putin’s nuclear threats. .

“When you get into that kind of ‘Armageddon’ and ‘World War III’ language as a public servant, I think you’re increasing the anxiety without actually conveying the deterrent threat,” Lewis said. “The main message the White House should be sending at this point is strength and confidence.”

Yet, he added, Putin could still miscalculate even if the White House’s message was flawless. “Even if they did it perfectly, there’s going to be a risk that he’ll misinterpret them, because he’s done that with Zelensky before,” Lewis said.

Other European officials have noted that Putin is unpredictable and dangerous, saying Russian losses on the battlefield create a kind of pressure he has rarely faced before. For months, the war did not go as planned for Putin, and he resorted to increasingly brazen and ambitious measures to try to stem his losses.

After failing in Kyiv, the Russian army withdrew from the Ukrainian capital in early April and refocused its efforts on capturing more territory in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, an area known as Donbass.

Regrouping transformed the conflict into a more traditional artillery war. Russian troops seized a string of new towns and villages in June and July in a disheartening moment for Ukrainian forces, who found themselves overwhelmed by long-range Russian artillery.

But the US and other European allies have armed the Ukrainians with more sophisticated weaponry, including the US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), and found ways to mitigate some ammunition shortages, helping to level the playing field.

By the time Kyiv launched its counteroffensive in late August, Putin’s forces had suffered significant casualties and lacked the manpower to defend such a large swath of territory. Russia’s frontline defenses in the Kharkiv region quickly crumbled and Ukrainian forces recaptured thousands of square miles in a rapid advance that threw Moscow off balance.

In recent weeks, as Ukrainian forces pushed further, Putin resorted to a move US intelligence sources said he would try to avoid at all costs: ordering a partial military mobilization of up to 300 000 reservists. Putin had been reluctant to take the plunge earlier, aware that it could hamper domestic support for the war, and since the announcement many Russian men have tried to flee the country to avoid conscription.

At the same time, Putin advanced the timetable for sham referendums and annexations, declaring that people living in the annexed regions would be “our citizens forever” and warning that the land now belonged to Russia and would be defended as if she was. any other part of the country.

These urgent – ​​some say desperate – actions form the backdrop to Putin’s escalating nuclear threat. Some analysts say the Russian president could see the threats as a way to make the United States and Europe think twice before letting Ukraine advance far enough to entice the Kremlin into potentially using a weapon of mass destruction.

“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will undoubtedly use all available means to protect Russia and our people,” Putin said on September 21. “It’s not a bluff”.

Ukrainian forces nonetheless continued to advance into territory that Putin now claims as belonging to Russia. In a fiery speech last Friday at the formal annexation ceremony of Ukrainian territories, Putin warned that the United States had “set a precedent” by using nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945.

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

John Hudson contributed to this report.

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