Armageddon: Biden opens his mouth again

Our president and his less-than-careful mouth did it again, this time warning that the U.S. faces the risk of nuclear “Armageddon” in off-the-cuff remarks during a private fundraiser for Democratic Senate candidates at the Manhattan home of James and Kathryn Murdoch. It’s another cringe-inducing case of Biden blurting out whatever’s on his mind, with the potentially huge consequence of implying that Ukraine is covered or protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, which would represent a major change in U.S. defense posture.

My first thought is that if the president of the United States is genuinely worried that a regional conflict in eastern Europe is leading us toward a nuclear exchange and “Armageddon” — Joe Biden’s words, not mine — then he probably should not announce it in off-the-cuff remarks during a private fundraiser for Democratic Senate candidates at the Murdochs’ Manhattan home. That seems like the sort of thing that warrants an Oval Office prime-time address.

And yet, here we are.

Biden said Thursday night that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “a guy I know fairly well” and the Russian leader is “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.” He suggested the threat from Putin is real “because his military is — you might say — significantly underperforming.”

As CNN dryly observed: “It’s striking for the President to speak so candidly and invoke Armageddon, particularly at a fundraiser, while his aides from the National Security Council to the State Department to the Pentagon have spoken in much more measured terms, saying they take the threats seriously but don’t see movement on them from the Kremlin.” Striking is one word for it, yes.

This is another statement that is likely going to get walked back. “Following Biden’s remarks, officials emphasized to CNN Thursday night that they had not seen any changes to Russia’s nuclear stance.”

‘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.’

As bad as the detonation of a tactical nuclear weapon would be, it would not cause the wide-scale devastation that people envision, thinking of The Day After, Threads, the Terminator movies, etc. No doubt, any nuclear detonation would be devastating to the immediate area. Putin and the Russian military could detonate a tactical nuke high in Ukraine’s atmosphere, generating an electromagnetic pulse and frying electronic equipment over a wide area. A low-altitude air-burst would be devastating to an area but have less-concentrated fallout. A surface or near-surface burst would generate a lot of radiation at the point of impact, and that radiation would likely be carried through the air to locations downwind, including for locations downwind. Finally, a subsurface burst would generate a large crater, but also in all likelihood less radiation, if it did not rupture the surface.

None of those are good things, but they are not the same as wiping out a city the size of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Since the first nuclear-test explosion on July 16, 1945, at least eight nations have detonated 2,056 nuclear bombs at dozens of test sites in remote locations. (The term “at least eight nations” is because no one has confirmed that the “Vela incident” was the Israelis and South Africans setting off a nuke on Prince Edward Islands in 1979, and it is widely suspected this was a key moment in the nuclear programs of those two countries.) A mushroom cloud in a remote, unpopulated area within Ukrainian borders, or out in the Black Sea, would mark a dark day, but it would not, ipso facto, begin the process of starting the end of civilization as we know it.

Biden’s specific words, according to the AP, were, “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.” I suppose that is indeed one form of attempted deterrence, but Biden’s words indicate that the use of a Russian tactical nuke would inexorably lead to an American nuclear response.

Let us be exceptionally clear: The U.S. may want to help Ukraine, but Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the U.S. is not obligated by treaty to defend Ukraine, and Ukraine is not covered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella. A nuclear attack on Ukraine is not the same as a nuclear attack on the United States, and it should not be treated as such. The detonation of a Russian nuke on Ukrainian soil or off Ukraine’s coast would be an outrage and a war crime. It would demand the imposition of all kinds of serious repercussions on the Russian state. But an American nuclear counterstrike is not and should not be one of those repercussions. (We have all kinds of ways to hit Russia hard that do not involve nuclear weapons. For example, that’s a nice power grid you’ve got there, Russia. It would be a shame if something happened to it.*)

The U.S. cares a lot about what happens in the Russia–Ukraine war. But we don’t care so much that we’re willing to lose some cities over it.

Biden’s off-the-cuff “Armageddon” warning is in line with his past “minor incursion” and “for God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power” gaffes. Biden has never been a disciplined thinker or speaker, and now that he is almost 80, he often blurts out the first thing that pops into his head. (Further evidence that Biden’s remarks were completely spur-of-the-moment and not any kind of planned announcement or release: Biden attended another Democratic fundraiser earlier in the day and didn’t mention Russia at all.)

Biden keeps saying things that are not U.S. government policy, and his staffers are then forced to rush out and insist that he didn’t mean to say what he just said. (CNN reported, “a senior US government official expressed surprise at the President’s remarks, saying there were no obvious signs of an escalating threat from Russia.”)

There is a time and place for strategic ambiguity — for leaving your opponent unsure of what your actual “red lines” are and what you’re really willing to do. But the stakes don’t get much higher than this, and miscalculations tend to have their own form of compounding interest: Each subsequent underestimation or overestimation of the opponent gets further from the mark.

It also seems like the Putin we’re dealing with now is not the same Putin we’ve dealt with during past crises and periods of tension. Putin was always cold, calculating, opportunistic, and underhanded, but he was also always rational. The Russian leader always seemed to be probing, testing to see what he could get away with, and through four U.S. presidents, he could get away with a lot. But this Putin, with his nearly two-year isolation because of Covid, partial mobilization of reserves, obsession with historical grievances, and claims that he “spends more and more of his time isolated deep inside nuclear bunkers” doesn’t seem like a man with a fine-tuned sense of risk.

For what it’s worth, United Kingdom defense secretary Ben Wallace recently declared that Putin is “highly unlikely” to use nuclear weapons, but that he is acting irrationally.

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