Analysis: Biden’s chilling ‘Armageddon’ warning raises the stakes with Putin

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CNN

To learn that a US president is speaking so outspokenly about the possibility of a nuclear “Armageddon,” as Joe Biden did on Thursday, is chilling.

It’s also a comment on the grave uncertainty about how Russian President Vladimir Putin, a self-proclaimed strongman, might react to the growing possibility of defeat in Ukraine in a war to which he has nailed his political survival.

Biden’s remarks, at a New York fundraising event, could open him up to criticism from political opponents that he speaks ingeniously about nuclear war – and at a political fundraiser of all places. But they are paradoxically also a little reassuring because they reveal a president deeply aware of the risks of escalation with the volatile leader of the Kremlin.

And whether 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 that could lead to a global disaster. In other words, Biden could reaffirm a deterrent after Putin warned he was not bluffing over his threat to possibly use a nuclear bomb.

But Biden’s comments also show that, in some ways at least, Putin’s nuclear threats have worked: They’ve left his opponents unsure of how he might fare.

Biden told Democratic donors the world has come to 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 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 is, you might say, grossly underperforming.”

US officials fear Putin is considering the use of a smaller tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine in a desperate attempt to turn the tide of the war. The White House says it warned the Kremlin that such a move would be “catastrophic” for Russia, but hasn’t said publicly exactly how it would react – although there is speculation that NATO could s implicate and directly target Russian forces, a scenario that could lead to a dangerous escalation with Moscow.

However, US officials have also said they have detected no signs that Russia is moving or preparing any of its tactical nuclear weapons, which can be small enough to target formations of soldiers or large enough to destroy. a town.

Former US Secretary of Defense says that in the unlikely event that Putin resorts to nuclear weapons, he could use that weapon

Biden’s comments on Thursday underscore the burden he now bears as the first president since the end of the Cold War more than 30 years ago, who faces the chilling 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 could have been triggered accidentally, according to historical accounts. But the only time Washington and Moscow stood on the brink of a deliberate nuclear exchange was during the tense 13-day standoff almost exactly 60 years ago, in October 1962, over Russian plans to station nuclear missiles in Cuba. Eventually, after intense messaging between Washington and Moscow, Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev backed down.

Presidents are often less cautious at political fundraising events, which are generally not filmed, although a press pool is allowed for certain remarks. So it’s possible the president’s comments — his toughest on the nuclear issue since the start of the war in Ukraine — didn’t come in a more conventional setting like a press conference. And the White House has often backtracked on off-the-cuff presidential remarks on foreign policy, particularly on how the United States would react if China invaded Taiwan.

But Biden’s musings seem to offer a window into his thinking as he explains how this crisis is ending. He seems to have wrestled with the same issues of escalation and avoiding a moment of no return that President John Kennedy had to grapple with in 1962 in his nuclear poker game.

“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 not only loses face but also loses significant power in Russia? Biden said.

The president may have thought of Kennedy’s commencement address at the American University in Washington in 1963, in which 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, the nuclear powers must avoid those confrontations which cause an adversary to choose between humiliating retreat or nuclear war,” Kennedy said.

“To adopt this kind of course in the nuclear age would only be proof of the bankruptcy of our policy – or of a collective death wish for the world.”

Biden has been scrupulous in trying to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, even though Putin has called the dispute a showdown with the West. But the great strategic danger now is that Russian defeats will drive Putin into exactly that impasse Kennedy warned of, where the Russian president could be faced with 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 caused human carnage, especially as it now appears to have Russian troops on the run. Putin cannot afford any outcome to the war that resembles anything but outright victory, even though his control over Russian media might allow him to turn defeat into victory.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the lack of diplomatic exit routes during a visit to Peru on Thursday.

“The fact is that President Putin and Russia have shown no interest in meaningful diplomacy. And unless and until they do, it’s very difficult to prosecute him,” Blinken said.

“We have always said, President (Volodymyr) Zelensky has always said, that this will ultimately be resolved through diplomacy. And if and when Russia shows that it has a serious purpose to engage in such diplomacy, we will be ready, we will be there. But every sign right now, unfortunately, is pointing in the opposite direction.

The longer the war lasts and the more successful the Ukrainian forces are, the more there will be concerns about Putin seizing his nuclear arsenal to try to change the equation. While some strategists think he is bluffing or that there are no real strategic advantages in breaking the nuclear taboo – an act that would leave Russia even more ostracized in the world – Western governments are genuinely worried about Putin’s state of mind. All of his previous assumptions and tactical decisions in Ukraine have backfired and fail to show the kind of strategic caution and clear thinking that are essential when the question becomes whether or not to use nuclear weapons.

With that in mind, Biden appeared to make an argument, which Putin is sure to hear, that the idea that the use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine could be contained and not lead to a conflagration further wide is false.

The whole strategic logic between keeping nuclear weapons for self-defense is that they are too terrible to use, and any nation that does would write 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 cause an escalation that would lead to an all-out and disastrous nuclear war.

“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 said at the fundraiser.

His comments underline the most important mission of his presidency – to guide the world through the most dangerous nuclear crisis in 60 years.

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