The US has been privately telling Russia for the past several months that there will be consequences if Moscow chooses to use a nuclear weapon in the Ukraine war, according to US officials.
It was not immediately clear how or when the warnings were sent. The State Department was involved, according to an official. The Biden administration has also leaned heavily on intelligence channels to communicate sensitive messages to Moscow during the buildup and prosecution of Russia’s war in Ukraine, including recently in negotiations over wrongfully detained Americans.
The warnings, first reported by Washington Post, comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin has once again threatened to turn to nuclear weapons amid a series of embarrassing setbacks on the battlefield in Ukraine. In a speech on Wednesday, he warned that “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapons systems available to us. This is not a bluff. ”
US officials have stressed that this is not the first time that Putin has threatened to turn to nuclear weapons since the start of his invasion of Ukraine in February, although some analysts have seen this threat as more specific and escalating than the Russian president’s previous rhetoric .
The US has also tried to dissuade Russia from using a nuclear weapon in public warnings in the past and has made the issue a theme for remarks at the UN General Assembly this week in New York. Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said Thursday that Russia’s “reckless nuclear threats must stop immediately.”
US President Joe Biden, appearing on CBS’s “60 Minutes” last week, said his message to Putin if he were to consider the use of nuclear weapons was: “Don’t do it. Don’t. Don’t be.”
The US response would be “consistent” but would depend “on the scale of what they do,” Biden said, without giving further details.
So far, top CIA officials have said publicly that they have seen no signs that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons. But some military analysts have been concerned that Russia may seek to use a so-called tactical or battlefield nuclear weapon in response to its poor showing in Ukraine — a tactic sometimes called “escalate to de-escalate.” Intelligence officials believe that Putin would likely only turn to that option if he felt that Russia or his regime was existentially threatened, and it is not clear whether he would feel that losing his war in Ukraine.