President Joe Biden said on Thursday that the risk of a nuclear “doomsday” was the highest in 60 years after Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his threat as Ukraine’s military retreats.
Speaking at a reception for the Democratic Senate campaign committee, Biden said it was the first “direct threat” to use nuclear weapons since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and “the way they’re going if in fact things continue to deteriorate.”
“We haven’t faced the prospect of the end of the world since the Kennedy and Cuban missile crises,” he said, making his most blunt comments on the use of nuclear weapons since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
Late last month, Putin reiterated the nuclear threat he made at the start of the Russian invasion.
“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will do everything possible to protect Russia and our people,” the Russian leader said in a nationally televised address.
“I’m not bluffing,” he added.
Putin issued a warning when announcing the call-up of 300,000 Russian troops after his army suffered a severe setback on the Ukrainian battlefield.
This week, troops in Kyiv advanced in the east and south of the country, threatening a major new breakthrough and forcing Putin’s soldiers out of territory he claimed to annex at a grand ceremony last week. As pressure builds over these failures and domestic mobilization is chaotic, there is growing concern that he may be willing to escalate further rather than accept failure.
Biden said Thursday that he took Putin’s threats seriously.
“We have someone I know. He’s not kidding when he talks about the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons, as you might say his military is clearly underperforming. ”
Biden added that he did not think the Kremlin could appeal to a tactical nuclear strike on the battlefield without triggering a global catastrophe – as some analysts have speculated.
“I don’t think it’s possible to easily [use] A tactical nuclear weapon, not the end of the world,” he said.
“We’re trying to figure out where is Putin’s way out? Where does he find a way out? Where does he find himself not only humiliated, but also powerful?” Biden said.
Biden was speaking at the home of James Murdoch, the son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who hosted the fundraiser. Some of his defenseless comments were not made on camera, but were reported by reporters as part of the pool’s reporting system.
U.S. officials have been cautious in assessing Putin’s nuclear threat.
“We do not see any reason to adjust our strategic nuclear posture, nor do we see any indication that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons immediately,” White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday.
Jack Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told NBC News’ “Meet the Press” last month that “if Russia goes down the dark path of using nuclear weapons, the consequences would be catastrophic.”
When pressed by host Chuck Todd what those countermeasures would be, Sullivan would simply say, “In private channels, we’ve spelled out in more detail what that means.”
Earlier on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a speech that Putin knew “the world will never forgive” Russia if it used nuclear weapons.
“He understands that after the use of nuclear weapons, he will no longer be able to save his life, so to speak, and I have full confidence in that,” Zelensky said.
Putin has used the threat of nuclear weapons as a tactic during his presidency and promised to target warheads in Europe in 2007.
In 2018, Putin claimed, Russia unveiled a slew of new nuclear-capable weapons, including an intercontinental ballistic missile that rendered defenses “useless”.
Western military analysts are skeptical that the Russian leader’s latest threat represents a real change in calculations.
“I think it shows that he wants people to think he’s going to risk a nuclear war,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at Saint Louis University. Andrews of Scotland told NBC News on the day of Putin’s televised warning. “I don’t think that means he’s more likely to do it than yesterday.”
The Cuban Missile Crisis is widely regarded as the most worrying and dangerous confrontation of the Cold War.
In October 1962, President John F. Kennedy said in a televised address that there was “clear evidence” that Russia had installed a nuclear strike capability in Cuba.
He declared a naval “quarantine” of the island and said any attack would be seen as a direct provocation by Russia and “requires a full-scale retaliatory response to the Soviet Union”.
A tense public standoff followed, and the crisis was only averted after some high-stakes diplomacy between Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, as the State Department’s own history of events shows. That way, they are hindered by a misunderstanding of each other’s positions and intentions.
The 13-day showdown led to the installation of a direct communication link between the White House and the Kremlin in 1963. This is still commonly referred to as a “red phone”, although no actual phone is involved.