US officials are nervous about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent threat to use nuclear weapons before illegally and controversially claiming large parts of Ukraine’s territory.
Current and former US officials said Sunday that while there is no one in Russia to stop Putin from using nuclear weapons, such a move would guarantee a disastrous response from the US and its NATO allies.
“To be clear, the guy making that decision, I mean, it’s a man. Mr. Putin is not controlled. Just as he made the irresponsible decision to invade Ukraine, he could make a different decision,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Sunday.
Austin added he doesn’t see “anything right now,” suggesting that Putin definitely made such a decision.
Former national security adviser HR McMaster said Sunday Putin was “under extreme pressure” after battlefield failures and domestic frustration over a mobilization order that could send hundreds of thousands of reservists to war.
“I think the message [Putin] is: If you use a nuclear weapon, it is a suicide weapon. And the response by NATO and the United States doesn’t have to be nuclear,” McMaster told Face the Nation host Margaret Brennan on CBS.
Putin’s attempt to annex four regions of Ukraine on Friday came after he warned that Moscow would use its massive nuclear arsenal to protect Russian territory or its people.
“It’s not a bluff. And those who are trying to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weather vane can turn around and point at them,” the Russian president said in a televised address.
Officials in Kyiv and Washington said they took the threat seriously but would not be deterred from fighting to drive Russia out of the territories it now claims.
Putin’s decision to call up up to 300,000 reservists drew protests across the country, and thousands of Russian military-age men fled the country to avoid conscription.
But experts say the undertrained reinforcements are unlikely to change the course of the war, and fear Putin could become increasingly dangerous if Russia continues to suffer costly and embarrassing casualties.
The Russian president responded with “the only quiver he has left, which is to threaten to use a nuclear weapon,” McMaster said.
Former CIA director and retired army general David Petraeus said Sunday that the US would lead a violent NATO response if Russia deployed the weapons.
The alliance “would eliminate every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea,” Petraeus said on ABC’s This Week.
“[Putin] trying to portray this as best he can to seem menacing, to be menacing, to try and crack Europe. He thinks he can outperform Europe if you will,” added Petraeus.
“But I don’t think he will surpass Europe. Europe will have a hard winter, there will be very little natural gas flow, but they will get through it and I don’t think they will back down on the issue of supporting Ukraine.”
Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said in a recent interview that he had told Russian officials “to stop loose talk about nuclear weapons,” but also warned of Putin’s lack of controls inside the Kremlin.
“Russia got into the mess it’s in because there’s nobody in the system who could effectively tell Putin he’s doing the wrong thing,” the secretary of state told CBS’ 60 Minutes host Scott Pelley. in an interview aired last week.
“It is very important that Moscow hears from us and knows from us that the consequences would be terrible,” Blinken said.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said last week the United States would respond “firmly” to any use of nuclear weapons and said the US had “set out in more detail what that would mean” in high-level talks with senior Russian officials “.
“Let me be clear: If Russia crosses this line, there will be catastrophic consequences for Russia,” the top national security adviser said.
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has long warned of Russia’s “nuclear terror” and “nuclear blackmail” amid conflict and tensions at the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, which has been occupied by Russian forces since the war began more than seven months ago.
However, he dismissed Putin’s nuclear threats in March as a “bluff” and changed his mind during an interview last weekend.
“Listen, maybe it was a bluff yesterday. Now it could be a reality,” Zelenskyy said of Putin’s remarks on CBS’s Face the Nation.