The White House’s attempt to cultivate what is known in the nuclear deterrence world as “strategic ambiguity” comes as Russia continues to escalate its rhetoric about the possible use of nuclear weapons as part of national mobilization aimed at stemming Russian military losses in eastern Ukraine.
The State Department was involved in private communications with Moscow, but officials would not say who delivered the messages or the scope of their content. It was unclear whether the United States had sent any new private messages in the hours since Russian President Vladimir Putin issued his latest veiled nuclear threat during a speech announcing a partial mobilization early Wednesday, but a senior US official said communication was happening steadily. over the past few months.
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Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, wrote in a message on Telegram on Thursday that the territory of eastern Ukraine would be “accepted in Russia” after the completion of the “referendums” organized and committed to strengthening the security of these areas.
To defend this annexed land, Medvedev said, Russia is able to use not only its newly mobilized forces, but also “any Russian weapon, including strategic nuclear weapons and those using new principles”, a reference to weapons hypersonic.
“Russia has chosen its path,” Medvedev added. “There is no turning back.”
The comment came a day after Putin suggested that Russia would annex occupied lands in southern and eastern Ukraine and formally integrate the regions into what Moscow considers its territory. He said he was not bluffing by promising to use all means at Russia’s disposal to defend the country’s territorial integrity – a veiled reference to the country’s nuclear arsenal.
Biden administration officials stressed that this was not the first time Russian leaders had threatened to use nuclear weapons since the war began on February 24, and said there was no indication that Russia moves its nuclear weapons in preparation for an impending strike.
Yet recent statements by Russian leaders are more specific than earlier comments and come at a time when Russia is reeling from a US-backed Ukrainian counteroffensive.
While previous Kremlin statements appeared to be aimed at warning the United States and its allies against going too far in helping Ukraine, Putin’s most recent comments suggest that Russia is considering to use a nuclear weapon on the battlefield in Ukraine to freeze gains and coerce Kyiv and its supporters. to submit, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonproliferation advocacy group in Washington.
“What everyone needs to recognize is that this is one of the most, if not the most serious, episodes in which nuclear weapons could be used in decades,” Kimball said. “The consequences of a so-called ‘limited nuclear war’ would be absolutely catastrophic.”
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For years, US nuclear experts have feared that Russia could use smaller tactical nuclear weapons, sometimes called “battlefield nuclear weapons”, to favorably end a conventional war on its terms – a strategy sometimes described like “escalate to defuse”.
On Thursday, Vadym Skibitskyi, Ukraine’s deputy military intelligence chief, told Britain’s ITV News there is a possibility that Russia could use nuclear weapons against Ukraine “to stop our offensive activity and destroy our state.”
“It’s a threat to other countries,” Skibitskyi said. “The explosion of a tactical nuclear weapon will have an impact not only in Ukraine but also in the Black Sea region.”
The Ukrainians tried to signal that even a Russian nuclear strike would not force them to capitulate – and could in fact have the opposite effect.
“Threaten with nuclear weapons… to Ukrainians? Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, tweeted Wednesday. “Putin hasn’t figured out who he’s dealing with yet.”
In an interview with CBS News’ “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday, Biden was asked what he would say to Putin if the Russian leader considered using nuclear weapons in the conflict against Ukraine.
“Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it,” Biden said. “You’re going to change the face of war like never before since World War II.”
Biden declined to detail how the United States would react, saying only that the reaction would be “consecutive” and would depend “on the extent of what they do.”
The Biden administration would face a crisis if Russia used a small nuclear weapon in Ukraine, which is not a US ally. Any direct US military response against Russia would risk the possibility of a broader war between the nuclear-armed superpowers – which the Biden administration has made its No. 1 priority in all of its policy decisions in Ukraine.
Matthew Kroenig, professor of government at Georgetown University and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, argued that the best option for the administration, if faced with a limited Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine, could be to intervene in support of Ukraine and conduct a limited conventional strike on the Russian forces or bases that launched the attack.
“If it was the Russian forces in Ukraine who launched the nuclear attack, the United States could hit those forces directly,” Kroenig said. “It would be calibrated to send a message that this is not a major war coming, this is a limited strike. If you are Putin, what do you do in response? nuclear weapons in the United States.
But even a limited conventional strike by the US military against Russia would be considered reckless by many in Washington, who would object to the risk of full-scale war with a nuclear-armed Russia.
James M. Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it didn’t make sense at this point to determine US responses because there is such a wide range of possible Russian actions – from an underground nuclear test that does no harm to a full-scale explosion that kills tens of thousands of civilians – and there is no indication that Putin is about to cross the threshold.
“If he was really, very seriously thinking about using nuclear weapons very imminently, he would almost certainly want us to know about it,” Acton said. “He would much rather threaten nuclear use and make us make concessions than have to go down the nuclear road.”
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US officials stepped up efforts at the UN General Assembly this week to dissuade Russia from seriously considering what would be the first use of a nuclear weapon in conflict since the US atomic bombing of Japan. in 1945.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking at a meeting of the UN Security Council on Thursday, said “Russia’s reckless nuclear threats must end immediately.”
“This week, President Putin said that Russia would not hesitate to use, and I quote, ‘all available weapon systems’ in response to a threat to its territorial integrity – a threat made all the more threatening by the fact that the Russians intend to annex large swaths of Ukraine in the coming days,” Blinken said. “When this is complete, we can expect President Putin to claim any Ukrainian effort to liberate this land as an attack on so-called Russian territory.”
Blinken noted that in January Russia joined other permanent members of the Security Council in signing a joint statement stating that “nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”
Hudson reported from the United Nations in New York.
War in Ukraine: what you need to know
The last: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on September 21, describing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to ” divide and destroy Russia”. .” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat into the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large quantities of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Organized referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place September 23-27 in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another organized referendum will be organized by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson from Friday.
Pictures: Washington Post photographers have been in the field since the start of the war. Here are some of their most powerful works.
How you can help: Here’s how those in the United States can help support the people of Ukraine as well as what people around the world have donated.
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