NEW YORK (Dispatches) — President Joe Biden said Thursday that the risk of nuclear “Armageddon” is at the highest level since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, as Russian officials speak of the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons.
Speaking at a fundraiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Biden said Russian President Vladimir Putin was “a guy I know fairly well” and the Russian leader was “not joking when he talks about the use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons.”
Biden added, “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
U.S. officials for months have warned of the prospect that Russia could use weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine, though Biden’s remarks marked the starkest warnings yet issued by the U.S. government about the nuclear stakes.
It was not immediately clear whether Biden was referring to any new assessment of Russian intentions. As recently as this week, though, U.S. officials have said they have seen no change to Russia’s nuclear forces that would require a change in the alert posture of U.S. nuclear forces.
“We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture, nor do we have indication that Russia is preparing to imminently use nuclear weapons,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday.
The 13-day showdown in 1962 that followed the U.S. discovery of the Soviet Union’s secret deployment of nuclear weapons to Cuba is regarded by experts as the closest the world has ever come to nuclear annihilation. The crisis during President John F. Kennedy’s administration sparked a renewed focus on arms control on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Biden also challenged Russian nuclear doctrine, warning that the use of a lower-yield tactical weapon could quickly spiral out of control into global destruction.
“I don’t think there is any such a thing as the ability to easily use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon,” Biden said.
Putin has repeatedly alluded to using his country’s vast nuclear arsenal, including last month when he announced plans to conscript Russian men to serve in Ukraine.
“I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction ... and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” Putin said Sept. 21, adding with a lingering stare at the camera, “It’s not a bluff.”
Ukraine went into damage control mode after remarks by President Volodymyr Zelensky were interpreted as him calling for the West to take “preventive strikes” against Russia, prompting a fierce response from Moscow.
Zelensky spoke Thursday via video link to the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, saying through an interpreter that to deter the use of nuclear weapons by Russia, NATO and the international community must take “preventive strikes”.
“Waiting for the nuclear strikes first and then to say ‘what’s going to happen to them.’ No! There is a need to review the way the pressure is being exerted. So there is a need to review this procedure, so to say,” he said.
Moscow responded to the term “strikes,” with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying the remarks were “nothing else than a call to start a world war,” while Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called Zelensky a “monster.”
Zelensky’s spokesman Sergii Nykyforov later clarified in a Facebook post that the Ukrainian president was referring to economic sanctions, which he felt should have been imposed by the West before Russia invaded Ukraine. Nykyforov said Zelensky meant “it was necessary to take preventive measures to prevent Russia from unleashing the war,” adding that Zelensky was talking about “preventive [economic] sanctions.”