President Biden said Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “not joking” in his threat to use nuclear weapons and warned of dire consequences if the Kremlin continues along its destructive path.
Speaking at a Democratic fundraiser in New York, Mr. Biden said that for the first time since October 1962, the U.S. faces “the direct threat of the use of a nuclear weapon if, in fact, things continue down the path they are going.”
“We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” he told the attendees at the private event.
Officials have expressed concern over the Kremlin’s nuclear threats throughout the war in Ukraine, but have said as recently as last week that they have not detected any of the kinds of changes in Russia’s nuclear forces that would alter the U.S. alert posture.
After sustaining heavy territorial and personnel losses in Ukraine, Mr. Putin has responded with a significant escalation in his nuclear saber-rattling, though it has been a persistent rhetorical theme by Russian officials since they invaded in February.
Mr. Putin warned in a rare televised event last month announcing the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of military reservists that Russia will use all tools at its disposal in response adding that his threats are not a “bluff.”
Mr. Biden said the U.S. is working to determine what Mr. Putin’s “off-ramp” in Ukraine might be.
“Where does he find a way out?” he said. “Where does he find himself in a position” that avoids his losing too much face or political power.
“We’ve got a guy I know fairly well,” he said of Mr. Putin. “He’s not joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons, because his military is, you might say, significantly underperforming.”
Western officials have been especially concerned about Mr. Putin’s inclination to conduct a low-yield tactical nuclear strike in Ukraine to send a warning to the West and rattle the Ukrainians who have continued to defy the Russian assault and talked about taking back territory that Russia seized in 2014.
Mr. Biden said the consequences of any nuclear strike would be disastrous.
“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,” he said.