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US sees Putin’s nuclear threat as posturing

(The Hill) – Russia has said it has deployed additional personnel to its nuclear forces, raising the geopolitical stakes as its invasion of Ukraine enters its fifth day.

But Western countries aren’t taking the bait, with President Joe Biden telling Americans on Monday they shouldn’t fear nuclear war, a stance that experts say could help head off a dangerous escalation of rhetoric. .

Moscow’s Defense Ministry said on Monday that those overseeing its nuclear arsenal “have started carrying out combat missions with reinforced personnel,” meaning the Kremlin’s nuclear weapons would be more ready to launch.

The escalation comes in the face of universal condemnation and painful sanctions against Russia from Western powers, as the Kremlin struggles to take the capital of Kiev.

US officials, however, played down nuclear threats as posturing, with the White House noting that it was “not going to indulge” in the rhetoric.

“At this time, we see no reason to change our own alert levels,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during her daily briefing, adding that “a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be conducted”.

“Neither the United States nor NATO has the desire or the intention to enter into conflict with Russia,” Psaki added.

State Department spokesman Ned Price echoed that sentiment earlier Monday, telling reporters, “We see no reason to change our own alert levels,” but adding “it increases the risk calculation error”.

And the Pentagon again indicated that it saw no specific moves in response to Putin’s order.

“I have nothing to confirm this information that they have changed their personnel,” Defense Department press secretary John Kirby said when asked if the United States had observed a change in personnel. Russian nuclear forces.

“What I would tell you is that we have seen Mr. Putin’s announcement. We think it’s as unnecessary as it is progressive, but we’re reviewing and analyzing this announcement,” Kirby said.

Putin, no stranger to slashing, last week threatened Western nations with “consequences you’ve never seen” if anyone interfered with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said. Thursday.

That bold threat, coupled with Monday’s move to ready Moscow’s nuclear arsenal, raised fears of another Cuban Missile Crisis — which, if the situation escalates, could draw the United States into direct conflict with largest nuclear-weapon state.

In the past, the Russian president has alluded to such a scenario, saying in a 2018 documentary that if another nation decides “to annihilate Russia, we have the legal right to respond. Yes, it will be a catastrophe for humanity and for the world. But I am a citizen of Russia and its head of state. Why do we need a world without Russia?

And less than a week before Russian troops arrived in Ukraine, the Kremlin staged mock nuclear weapons launches.

“Putin’s slashing is reminiscent of some of the things Khrushchev used to do,” said Daniel Fried, former US ambassador to Poland, referring to Nikita Khrushchev, former prime minister of the Soviet Union. “You don’t panic and let Putin start dictating to us, but you don’t escalate. You do not enter a spiral of threats. You handle it quietly.

Rep. Tom Malinowski (DN.J.), a former diplomat and member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that regardless of the threats coming from Moscow, “we have a nuclear deterrent and Putin fully understands that.”

“As far as the nuclear alert goes, I think we have to stay calm, not take the bait,” he told CNN’s ‘New Day’ program. “I think it’s designed to shake us up and maybe rally his own people in a sick way.”

The United States and Russia generally have their land-based nuclear forces — the intercontinental ballistic missiles kept in silos across the country — as well as their submarine-launched missiles always ready for combat, but they don’t keep the bombers loaded. .

Western nations are watching Russia’s nuclear forces closely, and the United States could very well see Russia begin modifying its weaponry in the coming days, said Mark Cancian, a former defense official currently at the Center for Strategic Studies. and international.

“The idea that [Putin] could start moving nuclear weapons, start coupling them maybe with launchers, it’s not impossible. I certainly hope he doesn’t,” said Cancian, who also worked on nuclear nonproliferation at the Department of Energy.

And while the idea of ​​Putin using a nuclear weapon is inconceivable to many, “he did a lot of things that I didn’t think he was going to do. I can’t completely rule out the possibility of him taking a step closer to nuclear forces,” he said.

Another concern is that Putin may use smaller tactical nukes as a wake-up call to the West or a means to break Ukrainian resistance and topple its government.

“He doesn’t have many options left,” Moscow-based military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told the BBC of Putin’s path forward as Russia’s economy suffers.

“One option for him is to cut off the gas supply to Europe, hoping this will set the Europeans back. Another option is to detonate a nuclear weapon somewhere over the North Sea between the Great Britain and Denmark and see what happens,” he said.

While the United States and Russia currently have only one bilateral nuclear treaty known as New START – intended to limit the number of strategic weapons deployed in each country – the agreement does not include the tactical armaments.

Still, the fact that the United States remains firm not to escalate tensions is a positive sign, James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said on Twitter.

“First of all, the lack of change is a good thing! It doesn’t change the fact that Putin made an explicit nuclear threat on Sunday, but it dampens the aggressiveness somewhat,” he said. don’t think Russian nuclear use is imminent. But I wouldn’t assume Putin has ruled it out. All his alternatives look bad right now. Basically he can broker a ceasefire that respects sovereignty Ukraine or continue the bloodshed of a conventional war.


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