To know that an American president speaks so frankly about the possibility of nuclear “Armageddon”, as Joe Biden did on Thursday, is chilling.
It is also a commentary on the grave uncertainty about how Russian President Vladimir Putin, a self-styled strongman, might react to the growing possibility of defeat in Ukraine in a war on which he has staked his political survival.
Biden’s comments, at a fund-raising event in New York, could open him up to criticism from political opponents that he is talking foolishly about nuclear war, and at a political fundraiser of all places. But paradoxically they are also somewhat reassuring because they reveal a president who is acutely aware of the risks of escalating with the Kremlin’s volatile leader.
And whether they were intended for public consumption or not, his comments will have the effect of signaling to Putin that any use of nuclear weapons, even a smaller battlefield device, could create a cascade of consequences which could lead to a global disaster. In other words, Biden may be reasserting a deterrence measure after Putin warned that he was not mincing his threat to possibly use a nuclear bomb.
But Biden’s comments also show that, in at least one way, Putin’s nuclear threats have worked: They have left his adversaries unsure of how he might behave.
Biden told Democratic donors that the world had arrived at a dangerous time.
“(For) the first time since the Cuban missile crisis, we have a direct threat of the use of (a) nuclear weapon if, in fact, things continue on the path they are on,” Biden said.
“We have a guy that I know pretty well,” Biden said of Putin.
“He’s not kidding when he talks about the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons because his military, you could say, is very underperforming.”
US officials are concerned that Putin may consider using a smaller tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine in a desperate bid to turn the tide of the war. The White House says it has warned the Kremlin that such a move would be “catastrophic” for Russia, but has not said publicly how exactly they would respond, although there is speculation that NATO could get involved and target Russian forces directly , a scenario that could lead to a dangerous escalation with Moscow.
US officials have also said, however, that they have detected no signs that Russia is moving or readying any of its tactical nuclear weapons, which can be small enough to target formations of soldiers or large enough to destroy a city .
Biden’s comments Thursday underscore the burden he now bears as the first president since the end of the Cold War more than 30 years ago to face the dire reality that nuclear war with Moscow is possible. At least once, during the decades-long standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, Armageddon may have been accidentally triggered, historical accounts show. But the only time Washington and Moscow came close to a deliberate nuclear exchange was in the tense 13-day standoff nearly 60 years ago, in October 1962, over Russian plans to station nuclear missiles in cuba Finally, after a heated exchange between Washington and Moscow, Russia’s leader, Nikita Khrushchev, backed down.
Presidents are often less heavily guarded during political fund-raising events, which are usually not shown on camera, although a press corps is allowed in for some observations. So the president’s comments – his toughest on the nuclear issue since the war in Ukraine began – may not have happened in a more conventional setting like a press conference. And the White House has often received unscripted presidential comments on foreign policy, particularly on how the US would respond if China invaded Taiwan.
But Biden’s musings appear to offer a window into his thinking as he figures out how this crisis ends. He appears to have been wrestling with the same questions about escalation and avoiding a moment of no return that President John Kennedy faced in 1962 in his game of nuclear poker.
“I’m trying to figure out what Putin’s exit ramp is,” Biden said. “Where does he find a way out? Where does he find himself in a position where he loses not only face but significant power in Russia? Biden said.
The president may have been thinking of Kennedy’s 1963 commencement address at American University in Washington, where he reflected on the lessons of the Cuban missile crisis and the risks posed by weapons that could end the world.
“Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avoid those confrontations that lead an adversary to choose between humiliating withdrawal or nuclear war,” Kennedy said.
“To take such a course in the nuclear age would be only evidence of the failure of our politics, or of a collective death wish for the world.”
Biden has been scrupulous in trying to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, although Putin has characterized the conflict as a confrontation with the West. But the big strategic danger now is that Russian defeats drive Putin into exactly the corner Kennedy warned against, where the Russian president faces a choice between humiliation or the use of a nuclear weapon.
The situation is complicated by the fact that there is no prospect of a diplomatic process to end the war. Ukraine is in no mood to talk after suffering an unprovoked invasion that has resulted in human carnage, especially since it now appears to have Russian troops on the run. Putin cannot afford any outcome in the war that looks like anything other than total victory, although his control over the Russian media could allow him to turn a loss into a victory.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the lack of diplomatic rampages during a visit to Peru on Thursday.
“The fact is that President Putin and Russia have shown absolutely no interest in any kind of meaningful diplomacy. And until they do, it’s very difficult to pursue,” Blinken said.
“We have always said, President (Volodymyr) Zelensky has said all along, that this will ultimately be resolved through diplomacy. And if and when Russia shows that it has a serious purpose, to engage in that diplomacy, we will be ready, we will be there. But every sign at the moment unfortunately points in the opposite direction.”
The longer the war continues and the greater the success of Ukraine’s forces, the greater the concern that Putin will reach for his nuclear arsenal to try to change the equation. While some strategists think he is bluffing or that there are no real strategic advantages to breaking the nuclear taboo, an act that would further ostracize Russia in the world, there is real concern among Western governments about the mood from Putin All of their previous assumptions and tactical decisions in Ukraine have failed, and they fail to show the kind of strategic caution and clear thinking that are critical when the question becomes whether or not to use nuclear weapons.
With that in mind, Biden appeared to be making an argument, which Putin will now surely hear, that the idea that the use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine could be contained and not lead to a wider conflagration is wrong.
The whole strategic logic behind keeping nuclear weapons for self-defense is that they are too terrible to be used, and any nation that did so would be writing its own death warrant.
The president has now sent a clear signal to the Russian leader that crossing the nuclear threshold in any way could trigger an escalation that would lead to a disastrous nuclear war.
“I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon,” Biden said at the fundraiser.
His comments underscore the most important mission of his presidency: shepherding the world through the most dangerous nuclear chasm in 60 years.