Facebook Twitter

World leaders, experts, respond to Putin’s nuclear threats

Ukraine’s counteroffensive successes could instigate a reckless use of tactical nuclear weapons by the Kremlin

SHARE World leaders, experts, respond to Putin’s nuclear threats

President Joe Biden addresses the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21, 2022, at the U.N. headquarters. How will the U.S., Europe respond if Vladimir Putin seeks to escalate his way out of a bad situation on Ukraine’s battlefields? To start with, by doubling down on the tactics that helped put Russia in a corner: more sanctions and isolation for Moscow, more arms for Ukraine. Biden promises a “consequential” response if Russia uses nuclear weapons. But Western leaders show no signs of matching Putin’s renewed nuclear threats with potentially escalatory nuclear bluster of their own.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

Last week, President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of troops, and in the same speech, declared the Kremlin would use nuclear weapons to defend its territory, according to Reuters.

According to the BBC, Russia has an estimated arsenal of around 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, technology that has never been used in combat.

In a televised address, Putin said, “I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction ... and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal. It’s not a bluff,” per The Associated Press.

U.S. officials react

A White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told ABC News “we have communicated directly, privately, to the Russians at very high levels that there will be catastrophic consequences for Russia if they use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.”

President Joe Biden, in an address to the United Nations, said, “Russia has shamelessly violated the core tenets of the United Nations Charter. ... President Putin has made overt nuclear threats against Europe and a reckless disregard for the responsibilities of the non-proliferation regime.”

A senior Biden administration official spoke with The Associated Press anonymously and said this rhetoric is similar to previous statements made by Putin. The official has not detected any “specific information, signals or moods” that would indicate nuclear preparations by Russia.

Experts weigh in

Dr. Heather Williams, a nuclear expert at Kings College London, told the BBC, “Russia is heavily dependent on Chinese support, but China has a ‘no first use’ nuclear doctrine. So if Putin did use them, it would be incredibly difficult for China to stand by him.”

Retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan, a former defense attaché to Russia and senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, indicated that Ukraine’s counteroffensive successes might instigate the Kremlin. He told Business Insider, “I have been thinking about the pressure Putin must be feeling to do something dramatic — which causes me to think again about nuclear triggers.”

James Acton, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Pace in Washington, D.C., said that if Russia experiences more significant setbacks, he is “legitimately worried” that Putin would use a nuclear weapon, “most likely on the ground in Ukraine to terrify everyone and get his way. We are not at that point yet,” per the BBC.