NEW YORK (AP) — President Joe Biden said Thursday that the risk of a nuclear “Armageddon” is at its highest level since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as Russian officials talk of the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons after eight years had suffered massive setbacks -month invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking at a fundraiser for Democratic Senators’ Campaign Committee, Biden said Russian President Vladimir Putin is “a guy I know pretty well” and that the Russian leader “doesn’t joke when he talks about using tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons.”
Biden added, “We haven’t faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” He suggested that the threat from Putin is real “because his military is — you could say — well below average.”
US officials have for months warned of the prospect of Russia using weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine as it has suffered a series of strategic setbacks on the battlefield, although Biden’s comments were the strongest warning the US government has issued about the nuclear deployments to date Has.
It was not initially clear whether Biden was referring to a reassessment of Russian intentions. However, as recently as this week, US officials said they had seen no change in Russia’s nuclear forces that would require a change in US nuclear force alert levels.
“We have seen no reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear position, nor do we have any indication that Russia is preparing to immediately use nuclear weapons,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday.
The 13-day showdown in 1962 that followed the discovery of the Soviet Union’s secret US stationing of nuclear weapons in Cuba is considered by experts to be the closest the world has ever come to nuclear annihilation. The crisis during the administration of President John F. Kennedy prompted a renewed focus on arms control on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Biden also questioned Russia’s nuclear doctrine, warning that deploying a shorter-range tactical weapon could quickly spiral out of control and lead to global destruction.
“I don’t think there’s any such thing as a way to just use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon,” Biden said.
He added that he is still “trying” to figure out Putin’s “exit” in Ukraine.
“Where does he find a way out?” Biden asked. “Where is he in a position where he loses not only face but significant power within Russia?”
Putin has repeatedly alluded to using his country’s vast nuclear arsenal, including over the past month when he announced plans to call up Russian men for service in Ukraine.
“I would like to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction … and if the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people,” Putin said 21. September added with a lingering look at the camera, “It’s not a bluff.”
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said last week the US had been “clear” to Russia about the “consequences” of using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine.
“It’s something we’re tuned into, something we take very seriously and communicating directly with Russia, including the critical responses the United States would have if it went down that dark path,” Sullivan said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said earlier Thursday that Putin understands that the “world will never forgive” a Russian nuclear strike.
“He understands that after the use of nuclear weapons he would not be able to save his life, so to speak, and I am confident of that,” said Zelenskyy.
Biden’s comments came during a private fundraiser for Democratic Senate candidates at the Manhattan home of James and Kathryn Murdoch. He is rather unguarded – often only spoken with rough notes – in settings that are only open to a handful of reporters without cameras or recording equipment.
Miller reported from Washington.