(CNN) — It will never 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 but clear and chilling message to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the disastrous consequences of using nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.
Jake Tapper asked Biden, the first president since the 1980s who really had to do the math on nuclear arsenals and deterrence, if he thought Putin, who has warned he is prepared to use every option in Russia’s arsenal, could 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 addressed this issue at an off-camera fundraiser in New York last week, made it abundantly clear that he was sending a public message to Putin about the dangers of thinking that using a smaller tactical nuclear bomb performance is an isolated event.
“What I am talking about, I am talking to Putin. He, in fact, cannot continue to talk about the use of a tactical nuclear weapon as if it were rational with impunity,” Biden said, before warning of the dangerous consequences of such a move.
“Mistakes are made, miscalculation could happen, no one can be sure what would happen and it could end in Armageddon,” he said, re-emphasizing that a nuclear explosion with thousands of deaths could lead to events out of control.
The danger of an escalation
Biden voices the fear of some strategists warning of an escalation that could occur if a nuclear bomb is used and triggers retaliation from the West, though any initial US response would certainly not go beyond conventional military action.
It also seems to be trying to create a narrative of deterrence around the specific situation in Ukraine. The logic of the US and Russian long-range strategic nuclear arsenals is that their use is deterred because a conflict would be suicidal for both sides. That equation does not exist in Ukraine, since 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 in the same way if Putin drops a nuclear bomb. By emphasizing that even a tactical device, which could be small enough to destroy an air base or large enough to reduce a city to ruins, could lead to worse, Biden seems almost to be seeking to create a new chain of calculations in Putin’s mind.
Two moments in Tapper’s interview made clear the burden now carried by the man who is followed everywhere he goes by a military officer who carries the nation’s nuclear codes.
First, the CNN anchor asked the president to point out the red line for the US and NATO in Ukraine and what Washington would do if Putin bombed a nuclear plant in Ukraine or detonated a tactical nuclear weapon.
“It would be irresponsible of me to talk about what we would or would not do,” Biden said.
Tapper then asked the president if the Pentagon had calculated scenarios. Biden responded earnestly: “You don’t need to ask the Pentagon.”
Expert: Use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine is still ‘not a likely event’
Most experts and strategists estimate that there are many reasons why Putin would not go so far as to use a nuclear weapon, including the possible risk of radioactive fallout crossing into Russia or the fact that the use of a tactical nuclear weapon could not really be a sensible strategic choice in war.
But the fact that he has pushed himself into a corner, coupled with his indifference to the loss of civilian life underlined again by his callous attacks on Ukrainian cities this week, suggests that a humanitarian push 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 goals were not rational. That leaves open the possibility of even more decisions that seem irrational to the West but may seem reasonable in Putin’s warped logic.
That is why Biden and the experts who have dedicated their careers to averting a nuclear apocalypse say the prospect of Putin using a nuclear weapon must be taken so seriously, even if the chances remain very low and the US can detect in advance if Russia’s atomic devices were in motion.
“It is not a likely event. It’s not even possible,” Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear non-proliferation expert and former president of the Ploughshares Fund, said on CNN’s “Newsroom” on Tuesday.
“But this is a low probability, high consequence event. If you use even one nuclear weapon, it will take us to a whole new world. It will deal massive damage. And you risk an escalation with trades from the West which could lead to more trades and so on.”
Cirincione explained that even if Putin’s saber rattling represented a political threat designed to scare the West, it cannot be ruled out.
“He has the means. He has the doctrine that allows him to use it. And he has the reason. He is losing this war. He has to do something to try and turn the tide of the battle in desperation. It could resort to a nuclear weapon.”
While some have criticized the US president for mentioning words like “armageddon” and comparing his rhetoric to Putin’s, the motivations of the two men are very different. At the very least, the Russian leader boasts of nuclear weapons to scare the world. Biden is speaking publicly about averting the possibility of disaster.
Biden does not rule out meeting with Putin
One of the reasons the war in Ukraine is so dangerous is that almost eight months later, there is no prospect of any genuine diplomatic process that could calm it down. Ukrainian 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 extensive carnage and destruction. Putin has thrown so much personal prestige and Russian blood into the war that he can hardly afford an outcome that he cannot present as a victory, despite his autocratic control over Russia.
Biden noted in the Tapper interview that he saw no real reason to meet with Putin when both leaders are expected to be at the G20 summit in Indonesia next month. But she left a door open for the Russian leader, saying she would sit down with Putin if he was willing to discuss the fate of American basketball star Brittney Griner, who was sentenced in August to nine years in prison after pleading guilty to drug smuggling. drugs. The United States says Griner and another American, former Marine Paul Whelan, have been wrongfully detained. Washington has offered to trade imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for the two Americans.
“Look, I have no intention of meeting him, but look, if he comes to me at the G20 and says, ‘I want to talk about Griner’s release,’ I would meet him, but that depends,” Biden said.
The president also downplayed the idea that, in general, there was something to talk about.
“He has acted brutally, I believe he has committed war crimes, so I don’t… see any reason to meet with him now.”