US sees Putin nuke threat as posturing

Russia has said it deployed extra personnel to its nuclear forces, upping the geopolitical stakes as its invasion of Ukraine entered its fifth day.

But Western nations aren’t taking the bait, with President Biden telling Americans on Monday they should not fear nuclear war, a posture that experts say may help avoid a dangerous escalation of rhetoric. 

Moscow’s defense ministry Monday said those overseeing its nuclear arsenal “began to carry out combat duty with reinforced personnel,” meaning the Kremlin’s nuclear weapons would be more ready to launch. 

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

U.S. officials, however, have played down the 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 at her daily press briefing, adding that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” 

“Neither the United States nor NATO has any desire or intention for 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 adds to the risk of miscalculation.” 

And the Pentagon again indicated that it had not seen any specific movements in response to Putin’s order. 

“I have nothing to confirm these reports that they’ve changed their staffing,” Defense Department press secretary John Kirby said when asked if the United States has observed a shift in Russia’s nuclear forces. 

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

Putin, no stranger to saber-rattling, last week threatened Western nations with “consequences you have never seen,” should any interfere with Russia’s invasion into Ukraine, launched Thursday. 

That bold threat, coupled with Monday’s move to ready Moscow’s nuclear arsenal, has sparked fears of another Cuban missile crisis — that should the situation escalate, the United States could be drawn into a direct conflict with the largest nuclear-armed state. 

The Russian president in the past has hinted at such a scenario, saying in a 2018 documentary that should another nation decide to “annihilate Russia, we have the legal right to respond. Yes, it will be a catastrophe for humanity and for the world. But I’m a citizen of Russia and its head of state. Why do we need a world without Russia in it?” 

And less than a week before Russian troops moved into Ukraine, the Kremlin held simulated nuclear weapon launches. 

“Putin saber-rattling recalls some of the stuff that Khrushchev used to do,” said Daniel Fried, former U.S. ambassador to Poland, referring to Nikita Khrushchev, former premier of the Soviet Union. “You don’t panic and allow Putin to start dictating to us, but you don’t escalate. You don’t get into a spiral of threats. You handle it quietly.” 

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.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 understands that perfectly well.”

“As far as the nuclear alert, I think we have to stay calm, not take the bait,” he said on CNN’s “New Day.” “I think this is designed to rattle us and perhaps to rally his own people in some sick way.”

The U.S. and Russia typically have their land-based nuclear forces — the intercontinental ballistic missiles kept in silos throughout the country — as well as their submarine-launched missiles always prepared for combat, but they don’t keep bomber aircraft loaded. 

Western nations closely monitor Russia’s nuclear forces, and the U.S. may very well see Russia start shifting around its armaments in the coming days, said Mark Cancian, a former defense official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

“The notion that [Putin] might start moving nuclear weapons around, start mating them maybe with launchers, it’s not impossible. I certainly hope he doesn’t do that,” said Cancian, who also worked on nuclear nonproliferation in the Department of Energy. 

And while the notion of Putin using a nuclear weapon is inconceivable to many, “he’s done a lot of things that I didn’t think he was going to do. I can’t completely rule out the possibility that he might take another step of the nuclear forces,” he said. 

Another worry is that Putin may use smaller, tactical nuclear weapons as a warning shot to the West or a way to break the Ukrainian resistance and topple its government. 

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

“One option for him is to cut gas supplies to Europe, hoping that will make the Europeans climb down. Another option is to explode a nuclear weapon somewhere over the North Sea between 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 — meant to limit the number of deployed strategic weapons in each country — the agreement does not include the tactical armaments. 

Still, the fact that the United States remains firm on not adding to the 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 off, the lack of change is a Good Thing! It doesn’t alter the fact Putin made an explicit nuclear threat on Sunday, but it does dial down the aggressiveness somewhat,” he said. “I 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 negotiate a ceasefire that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty or continue the bloodbath of a conventional war.”

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