The US has issued a secret warning to Russia not to use nuclear weapons

For months, the United States has been sending private communications to Moscow warning the Russian leadership of the dire consequences of using nuclear weapons, according to U.S. officials, which they say underscore what President Biden and his aides have said publicly.

Describing the sensitive deliberations on condition of anonymity, officials said the Biden administration has typically decided to keep vague warnings about the consequences of a nuclear strike, leaving the Kremlin worried about how Washington would respond.

The White House’s attempt to cultivate what is known in the nuclear deterrence world as “strategic ambiguity” comes as Russia continues to escalate its rhetoric about the possible use of nuclear weapons and its domestic mobilization aimed at stemming Russian military losses in eastern Ukraine.

The State Department was involved in private communications with Moscow, but officials would not say who passed on them or the scope of the information. It is unclear whether any new private messages have been sent by the United States in the hours since Russian President Vladimir Putin released his latest veiled nuclear threat in a speech announcing a partial mobilization earlier Wednesday, but one Such communications have been going on in recent months, a senior U.S. official said.

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Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, wrote in a Telegram post on Thursday that territories in eastern Ukraine will be “accepted by Russia” after completing a phased “referendum” and vowed to strengthen safety in these areas.

To defend the annexed land, Medvedev said, Russia could use not only its newly mobilized forces, but also “any Russian weapon, including strategic nuclear weapons and weapons using new principles,” a nod to hypersonic weapons. mentioned.

“Russia has chosen its own path,” Medvedev added. “There is no turning back.”

The comments came a day after Putin suggested Russia would annex occupied lands in southern and eastern Ukraine and formally incorporate those areas into what Moscow considers territory. He said he wasn’t bluffing when he vowed to use all means available to Russia to defend the country’s territorial integrity — it was a veiled reference to the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Biden administration officials stressed that this is not the first time a Russian leader has threatened to use nuclear weapons since the war began on February 2. 24, and said there were no signs Russia was moving its nuclear weapons in preparation for an imminent strike.

Still, the latest statement from the Russian leadership is more specific than previous comments and comes at a time when Russia is stepping into the field over a U.S.-backed counteroffensive in Ukraine.

Previous Kremlin statements appeared aimed at warning the United States and its allies not to go too far in helping Ukraine, while Putin’s recent comments suggest Russia is considering the use of nuclear weapons on the Ukrainian battlefield to freeze gains and force Kyiv and its backers in Washington. said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonproliferation advocacy group.

“Everyone needs to realize that this is one of the worst possible use of nuclear weapons in decades,” Kimball said. “Even the consequences of a so-called ‘limited nuclear war’ would be absolutely catastrophic.”

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For years, U.S. nuclear experts have worried that Russia could use smaller tactical nuclear weapons, sometimes referred to as “battlefield nuclear weapons,” to beneficially end conventional warfare on its terms — a strategy sometimes referred to as “escalation to downgrade”.

On Thursday, Vadym Skibitskyi, deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service, told ITV News in the UK that there was a possibility that Russia could use nuclear weapons against Ukraine “to deter our offensive activities and destroy our country”.

“It’s a threat to other countries,” Skibitsky said. “The explosion of tactical nuclear weapons will not only affect Ukraine, but also the Black Sea region.”

The Ukrainians are trying to show that even a Russian nuclear strike will not force them to surrender – in fact it could have the opposite effect.

“Threatening with nuclear weapons … to the Ukrainians?” Mikhailo Podoljak, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, on twitter on wednesday“Putin still doesn’t understand who he’s dealing with.”

In an interview with CBS News’ “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday, Biden was asked what he would tell Putin if the Russian leader considered using nuclear weapons in a conflict with Ukraine.

“No. No. Don’t,” Biden said. “You will change the face of warfare since World War II.”

Biden declined to elaborate on how the U.S. would respond, saying only that the response would be “significant” and would depend on “the extent of what they do.”

The Biden administration would face a crisis if Russia used small nuclear weapons in Ukraine, which is not a treaty ally of the United States. Any direct U.S. military response to Russia risks sparking a wider war between the nuclear-armed superpowers — a war the Biden administration has made avoiding a priority. 1 A priority in all its Ukrainian policy making.

Matthew Kronig, a professor of government at Georgetown University and director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, believes that in the face of a limited Russian nuclear strike against Ukraine, the government’s best option may be to act . Support Ukraine and conduct limited conventional strikes against Russian troops or bases that have launched the attack.

“If it was Russian forces in Ukraine that launched a nuclear attack, the U.S. would probably hit those forces directly,” Kronig said. “It would be calibrated to send the message that this is not a major war coming, this is a limited blow. If you were Putin, how would you respond? I don’t think you would immediately say let’s fire the US All nuclear weapons.”

But even a limited conventional strike by the U.S. military against Russia would be seen as reckless by many in Washington, who oppose risking a full-scale war with a nuclear-armed Russia.

James M. Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it would be pointless to play with the U.S. response at this point, given the wide range of actions Russia could take — never harming anyone The underground nuclear test of the United States has caused a massive explosion that killed tens of thousands of civilians — and there are no signs that Putin is about to cross the threshold.

“If he was really, really, really serious about thinking about the imminent use of nuclear weapons, he would almost certainly want us to know that,” Acton said. “He would rather threaten nuclear use and get us to make concessions than actually go down the path of nuclear use.”

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U.S. officials stepped up efforts at the U.N. General Assembly this week to prevent Russia from seriously considering the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict since the U.S. atomic bombing of Japan in 1945.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told a UN Security Council meeting on Thursday that Russia’s “reckless nuclear threat must cease immediately.”

“This week, President Putin said that Russia would not hesitate to use ‘all available weapons systems’ to counter threats to its territorial integrity – even more threatening given the Russians’ intention to annex large tracts of land. days to come,” Blinken said. “When this is done, we can expect President Putin to claim that any effort by Ukraine to liberate this land is an attack on so-called Russian territory.”

Blinken noted that Russia signed a joint statement with the other permanent members of the Security Council in January declaring that “a nuclear war will never be won and will never be fought.”

Hudson reported from the United Nations in New York.

Ukraine war: what you need to know

Newest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of the military in his Sept. 9 national address. On the 21st, the move was characterized as an attempt to defend Russia’s sovereignty against the West, which was trying to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow us here for live updates.

Fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in recent days has forced Russia into a massive retreat in the northeastern region of Kharkiv as troops fled the cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned vast quantities of military equipment.

Merger referendum: The staged referendum, which is illegal under international law, will begin on September 1. According to the Russian news agency, from the 23rd to the 27th local time, the separate regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. The Moscow-appointed government will start another staged referendum in Kherson on Friday.

photo: Photographers for The Washington Post have been on the ground since the war began — some of their most influential work.

How you can help: Here’s how Americans can help support the people of Ukraine, and people around the world have been giving.

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