It’s never going to feel normal to hear a president discussing the danger of “Armageddon” – especially now, on camera.
But Joe Biden used an exclusive CNN interview on Tuesday to send another careful, yet clear and chilling message to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the disastrous consequences of using nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.
The first president since the 1980s to really have to game out calculations about nuclear arsenals and deterrence, Biden was asked by Jake Tapper whether he thought that Putin – who has warned he is prepared to use every option in Russia’s arsenal – might consider detonating one of the world’s most heinous weapons as an act of desperation in a losing war.
Biden replied: “I don’t think he will.”
But the President, who first touched on this subject at an off-camera fundraiser in New York last week, made crystal clear he was sending a public message to Putin about the dangers of thinking that using a lower yield, tactical nuclear bomb would be an isolated event.
“What I am talking about, I am talking to Putin. He, in fact, cannot continue with impunity to talk about the use of a tactical nuclear weapon as if that’s a rational thing to do,” Biden said, before warning of dangerous consequences of such a move.
“The mistakes get made, the miscalculation could occur, no one could be sure what would happen and it could end in Armageddon,” he said, again stressing that a nuclear blast that kills thousands of people could lead to events barreling way out of control.
Biden is stating the fear of some strategists who warn about a ladder of escalation that could occur if a nuclear bomb is used and triggers reprisals by the West – even though any initial US response would certainly go no further than conventional military action.
He also appears to be trying to create a narrative of deterrence around the specific situation in Ukraine. The logic of the US and Russia’s long-range strategic nuclear arsenals is that the use of them is deterred because a conflict would be suicidal for both sides. That equation does not exist in Ukraine, since the country has no nuclear arsenal and it’s hard to conclude that it represents a vital national interest that would lead Washington to respond in kind to Putin going nuclear. By stressing that even a tactical device – which could be small enough to destroy an airbase or large enough to reduce a city to ruins – could lead to something worse, Biden seems to be almost seeking to create a new chain of calculations in Putin’s mind.
Two moments in Tapper’s interview brought home the burden now borne by the man who is followed everywhere he goes by a military officer carrying the nation’s nuclear codes.
First the CNN anchor asked the President to state the US red line for the US and NATO in Ukraine and what Washington would do if Putin bombed a nuclear plant in Ukraine or set off a tactical nuclear weapon.
“It would be irresponsible for me to talk about what we would or wouldn’t do,” Biden said.
Then, Tapper prodded the President over whether the Pentagon had gamed out scenarios. Biden soberly replied: “The Pentagon didn’t have to be asked.”
Most experts and strategists estimate that there are many reasons why Putin would stop short of using a nuclear weapon – among them the possible risk of radioactive fallout crossing into Russia or the fact that the use of a tactical nuclear weapon may not actually be a sensible strategic option in the war.
But the fact he’s pushed himself into a corner, along with his obliviousness to civilian loss of life underscored again by his callous assaults on Ukrainian cities this week, suggests that a humanitarian impulse is unlikely to be part of his calculation. And Biden himself said in the interview that while he believed Putin was a “rational actor,” he had made significant miscalculations and his objectives were not rational. That leaves open the possibility of even more decisions that appear irrational to the West but may seem reasonable in Putin’s warped logic.
That is why Biden and experts who have dedicated their careers to staving off a nuclear apocalypse say the possibility that Putin may go nuclear must be taken so seriously – even if the chances remain very low and the US would likely be able to detect well ahead of time if Russia’s atomic devices were on the move.
“It’s not a probable event. It’s not even likely,” said Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear non-proliferation expert and former president of the Plowshares Fund, said on CNN’s “Newsroom” on Tuesday.
“But this is a low probability, high consequence event. If he uses even one nuclear weapon, he’s bringing us into a whole new world. He’s causing massive damage. And he’s running the risk of escalation with exchanges from the West that could lead to further exchanges, et cetera.”
Cirincione explained that even if Putin’s saber rattling represented a political threat designed to scare the West, it cannot be discounted.
“He has the means. He has the doctrine that allows him to use it. And he has the motive. He is losing this war. He has to do something to try to turn the tide of battle in desperation. He might turn to a nuclear weapon.”
While some critics have faulted the President for mentioning words like “Armageddon” and comparing his rhetoric to that of Putin, the motivations of the two men are very different. At a minimum, the Russian leader is boasting about nuclear weapons to scare the world. Biden is speaking publicly to stave off the possibility of disaster.
One reason the war in Ukraine is so dangerous is that nearly eight months in, there remains no prospect of any genuine diplomatic process that could defuse it. Ukraine’s forces, using US and allied weapons systems, are making remarkable progress on the battlefield and are determined to repel an unprovoked invasion that has caused carnage and extensive destruction. Putin has thrown so much personal prestige and Russian blood into the war he can hardly afford any outcome he cannot spin as a win, despite his autocratic grip on Russia.
Biden signaled in the Tapper interview that he saw no real rationale to meet Putin when both leaders are expected to be at the G20 summit in Indonesia next month. But he did leave one intriguing door open to the Russian leader, saying he’d sit down with Putin if he were willing to discuss the fate of US basketball star Brittney Griner, who was sentenced in August to nine years in prison after pleading guilty to drugs smuggling. The US says Griner and another American, former US Marine Paul Whelan, have been wrongfully detained. Washington has offered to swap jailed Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout for the two Americans.
“Look, I have no intention of meeting with him, but look, if he came to me at the G20 and said, ‘I want to talk about the release of Griner,’ I would meet with him, but that would depend,” Biden said.
The President also downplayed the idea that more generally there was anything to talk about.
“He’s acted brutally, I think he’s committed war crimes, and so I don’t… see any rationale to meet with him now.”