It will never feel normal to hear a president discuss the dangers of “doomsday” — especially now, on camera.
But in an exclusive interview with CNN on Tuesday, Joe Biden sent another cautious, clear and chilling message to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the catastrophic consequences of using nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war.
As the first president since the 1980s to actually have to make calculations about nuclear arsenals and deterrence, Jake Tapper asked Biden if he thought Putin — who had warned him to be prepared to use all the options in Russia’s arsenal — might consider detonating one of the worlds The most heinous weapon on the planet is an act of desperation in a lost war.
Biden replied: “I don’t think he will.”
But the president, who first addressed the topic at an off-aircraft fundraiser in New York last week, made it clear he was sending a public message to Putin that the use of low-yield tactical nuclear bombs would be a dangerous practice. isolated incident.
“What I’m talking about, I’m talking to Putin. The fact that he can’t keep talking about using tactical nuclear weapons with impunity as if it’s a reasonable thing to do,” Biden said before warning of the dangerous consequences of such a move .
“Mistakes are made, miscalculations can happen, no one can be sure what will happen, and it could end in the end of the world,” he said, stressing again that a nuclear explosion that killed thousands could cause events to spiral out of control.
Biden has voiced the fears of some strategists, who have warned that there could be an escalation ladder if a nuclear bomb is used and provokes Western retaliation — although any initial U.S. response will certainly not go further than conventional military action.
He also appears to be trying to create a deterrent narrative around the specific situation in Ukraine. The logic of the U.S.-Russia long-range strategic nuclear arsenal is to deter their use because conflict is suicidal for both sides. This equation does not exist in Ukraine, because the country does not have a nuclear arsenal and it is difficult to conclude that it represents a vital national interest that would lead Washington to respond to Putin’s nuclear weapons. By emphasizing that even a tactical device — which could be small enough to destroy an air force base or large enough to turn a city into rubble — could lead to worse things, Biden seems to be almost seeking to get in Putin’s mind to create a new computing chain.
There were two moments in Tapper’s interview that made him understand the burden this man now carries, being followed wherever he goes by an officer who carries the nation’s nuclear code.
First, the CNN anchor asked the president to explain the U.S. and NATO’s U.S. red lines in Ukraine, and what Washington would do if Putin bombed a nuclear power plant in Ukraine or detonated tactical nuclear weapons.
“It’s irresponsible to me to talk about what we’ll or won’t do,” Biden said.
Tapper then asked the president if the Pentagon had considered various scenarios. Biden replied calmly: “Don’t ask the Pentagon.”
Watch the full exclusive interview with President Joe Biden
Most experts and strategists estimate that Putin does not use nuclear weapons for a number of reasons — including the risk that radioactive fallout could enter Russia, or that the use of tactical nuclear weapons might not actually be a sensible strategy. choices in war.
But the fact that he cornered himself, and this week’s brutal attacks on Ukrainian cities, once again underscored his disregard for the loss of civilian life, suggesting humanitarian impulses are unlikely to be part of his calculations. Biden himself said in the interview that although he thinks Putin is a “rational actor”, he has made a major miscalculation and his goals are not rational. That leaves open the possibility of more decisions that seem unreasonable in the West but plausible in Putin’s twisted logic.
That’s why Biden and experts who have devoted their lives to averting a nuclear catastrophe say the possibility that Putin might use a nuclear weapon must be taken so seriously — even if the odds are still very low, the U.S. is likely to find out in advance that if Russia’s atomic devices are moving, That’s the time.
“It’s not a possible event. It’s not even likely,” Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear nonproliferation expert and former president of the Ploughshare Fund, said Tuesday on CNN’s “Newsroom.”
“But it’s a low probability, high consequence event. If he even uses a nuke, he’s taking us into a whole new world. He’s doing a lot of damage. And he’s running the risk of escalating exchanges with the West. , which could lead to further exchanges and more.”
Cirincione explained that even if Putin’s rattling of swords is a political threat designed to intimidate the West, it cannot be underestimated.
“He has a way. He has a teaching that allows him to use it. He has a motive. He is losing this war. He has to do something to try and turn the tide of the war in desperation. He might turn to nuclear weapons.”
While some critics have accused the president of mentioning words like “doomsday” and comparing his remarks to Putin’s, the two have very different motives. At the very least, the Russian leader is bragging about nuclear weapons to scare the world. Biden spoke publicly to avoid the possibility of disaster.
One reason the war in Ukraine is so dangerous is that almost eight months on, there is still no hope that any real diplomatic process can defuse it. Using U.S. and allied weapons systems, the Ukrainian military has made significant progress on the battlefield and is determined to repel an unprovoked invasion that caused carnage and widespread destruction. Putin invested so much personal prestige and Russian blood in the war that, despite his authoritarian control over Russia, he could hardly afford any outcome he could not see as a victory.
In an interview with Tapper, Biden said he saw no real reason to meet Putin when the two leaders are expected to meet at the G20 summit in Indonesia next month. But he did open an interesting door for the Russian leader, saying he would sit down with Putin if he was willing to discuss the fate of American basketball star Britney Greener. Drug smuggling. The U.S. said Greener and another American, former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, were wrongfully detained. Washington has offered to trade two Americans for jailed Russian arms trafficker Victor Bout.
“Look, I have no intention of meeting with him, but look, if he comes to me at G20 and says, ‘I want to talk about releasing Griner,’ I’ll meet with him, but it depends on the situation,” Biden said.
The president also played down the idea of what to talk about more generally.
“His behavior was barbaric and I think he committed a war crime, so I don’t…have any reason to meet him now.”