https://news.yahoo.com/a-very-dangerous-road-putin-and-the-us-navigate-a-new-round-of-nuclear-brinkmanship-215752536-090025942.html

WASHINGTON — After the Soviet Union decided to remove nuclear missiles from Cuba in October 1962, President Kennedy praised Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for his “statesmanlike decision,” which he believed would prove “an important and constructive contribution to peace.”

A half-century later, President Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin find themselves in a similar scenario, with nuclear fears growing and diplomatic solutions seemingly unattainable. The Russian Embassy in Washington has warned of a “Cuban Missile Crisis 2.0,” though it blames the West for the escalation.

It was that perilous moment in history, when nuclear war suddenly became a real possibility, that President Biden also invoked last Thursday, when he unexpectedly addressed Putin’s nuclear brinkmanship during a fundraiser in New York. “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis,” Biden said. He added that, in his view, Putin “is not joking when he talks about the potential use of tactical and nuclear weapons.”

President Biden speaking in Hagerstown, Md., on Friday (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Biden dismissed the idea of a so-called limited nuclear strike that uses a smaller, or tactical, nuclear weapon — perhaps against battlefield positions instead of cities — to frighten the enemy into subservience. As the 1983 American military simulation known as Proud Prophet showed, a limited nuclear engagement is wishful thinking.

“I don’t think there’s any such thing as an ability to easily lose a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon,” Biden said last Thursday, reinforcing the point Proud Prophet made nearly four decades ago. Biden, in effect, was asking Putin which Khruschev he intended to be when histories of the present moment are written: the one who nearly started a nuclear war, or the one who averted it?

As with Biden’s recent assertion that the U.S. would defend Taiwan from Chinese aggression, the president’s bluntness seemed out of step with U.S. policy, under which defense and diplomatic officials downplayed the threat of a nuclear war in recent days. At the same time, Biden put the situation into a bracing historical context that left little room for ambiguity.

“I think it’s good that the administration has made some tougher threats recently,” said the Matthew Kroenig, director of studies at the Atlantic Council who served in high-level national security roles for several administrations prior to the current one. But, Kroenig told Yahoo News, “the ‘Armageddon’ piece could have been presented in a more helpful way.”

Kyiv under attack from Russian missiles

Kyiv under attack from Russian missiles on Monday. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

The White House says that Biden was doing nothing more than clarifying the moment’s soaring stakes, which no one but Putin has worked harder or more recklessly to raise. “The president’s comments reinforce how seriously we take these threats about nuclear weapons,” a senior administration official told Yahoo News.

“The kind of irresponsible rhetoric we have seen is no way for the leader of a nuclear armed state to speak,” the senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “If the Cuban missile crisis has taught us anything, it is the value of reducing nuclear risk, not brandishing it.”

And while the “Armageddon” comments may have been off the cuff, they were informed by Biden’s own experience. He was a carefree University of Delaware student when the world seemed on the cusp of a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the U.S., while Putin was a young boy playing in the courtyards of a Leningrad still recovering from World War II. Five decades later, the two men are locked in a geopolitical struggle whose contours mirror all too closely those of the Cold War.

“I think it’s psychological,” says Nikolai Sokov, a nuclear nonproliferation expert who once worked for the Soviet Foreign Ministry, of Biden’s message to Putin. In a phone conversation, Sokov told Yahoo News that Biden’s stark warning was an attempt to persuade Putin that his frequent contemplations about a nuclear strike were already a step too far, especially since the West would respond accordingly. “The ongoing conflict may escalate.” Sokov said. “And once you’re locked into that dynamic, it’s very, very hard to stop,”

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin addresses a rally marking the annexation of four regions of Ukraine, Sept. 30. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)

Biden’s remarks came almost a week after Putin delivered a vitriolic speech from the Kremlin, at a ceremony annexing four Ukrainian territories. In his remarks, the Russian leader cast the conflict as one far more significant than a dispute over territory — which Russia continues to lose to a determined Ukrainian counteroffensive. Putin depicted his war of aggression against a much smaller neighbor as an existential struggle between Russia and the West, whose sins he dutifully enumerated, finally alighting on the use of atomic weapons during World War II.

“The United States is the only country in the world that has used nuclear weapons twice, destroying the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan,” Putin said. “And they created a precedent.”

To his supporters, Putin may have just been stating historical fact, while also highlighting the hypocrisy of Western leaders whose countries have made plenty of territorial grabs of their own (the speech was rife with references to the bloody legacy of colonialism). But to many observers in the West, the combination of context and innuendo was chilling.

The headline of a Wall Street Journal op-ed put the matter bluntly: “Putin’s Nuclear Threat Is Real.”

Ukrainian civilians in the city of Kupiansk evacuate after an explosion on a bridge over the Oskil River, Sept. 24

Ukrainian civilians in the city of Kupiansk evacuate after an explosion on a bridge over the Oskil River, Sept. 24. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)

“This is something we have not seen before, which is a nuclear state making a direct threat to use nuclear weapons,” John Erath, senior policy director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told Yahoo News. Biden “is reminding the Russians that they are taking us down a very dangerous road,” one that has rarely been traveled — and could lead, Erath says, to a nuclear exchange.

But in the days after Putin’s speech, officials in Washington worked assiduously to reassure that, in fact, nothing had changed. “We’re watching this as closely as we can, and we’ve seen nothing to make us change our strategic deterrence posture,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on CNN.

Russia, for its part, says that it is Washington, not Moscow, that is escalating nuclear rhetoric. “Any military confrontation between nuclear powers would inevitably result in catastrophic consequences,” the Russian Embassy in the United States stated after Putin’s annexation speech, even as it reiterated that the U.S. “should not doubt our determination to defend Russia’s national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and people by all weapon systems available to us.”

The White House also says that Biden’s intent on Thursday was to further isolate Putin in the eyes of other world leaders, to keep him from normalizing nuclear threats as part of his discourse. While the likes of North Korea and Iran issue hyperbolic threats of destruction, Russia is not only a superpower but the most nuclear-capable superpower in the world.

Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles on display in Red Square during the nation's Victory Day parade, commemorating the end of World War II

Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles on display in Red Square during the nation’s Victory Day parade, commemorating the end of World War II, May 9, 2009. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images)

“We are not yet at the level of risk that we saw during the Cuban missile crisis, when events began to slip out of control. But the trajectory is not good,” Reid Pauly, a Brown University expert on nuclear policy, told Yahoo News. “I expect we will continue to see Putin return to nuclear threats whenever the war is going poorly.”

The question is whether those threats are anything more than rhetoric. What does their frequency, or intensity, say about Putin’s state of mind?

“I think they are prepared to follow through on the threat. I don’t think they want to,” Erath told Yahoo News. “What the president is saying is, ‘Hey, be careful. This is a road nobody wants to go down.’”

The senior Biden administration official told Yahoo News that before delivering his remarks to the United Nations General Assembly last month, the president personally rewrote the speech to include a condemnation of Putin’s “reckless disregard for the responsibilities of the nonproliferation regime.” He did so for the same reason that he warned last Thursday about “Armageddon”: to keep the pressure on a Kremlin regime whose rhetoric has turned deeply embittered.

After setbacks by Russian forces in Ukraine, Chechen warlord and Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov urged the Kremlin to use a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield. Doing so would have little military value, and the Kremlin seemed to discount Kadyrov’s provocative advice. “There can be no other considerations when it comes to this,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said when asked about Kadyrov’s suggestion.

Ramzan Kadyrov

Head of the Chechen leader and Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov. (Chingis Kondarov/Reuters)

As Putin doubtlessly knows, using a nuclear weapon against Ukrainian military positions or cities would have devastating ramifications for Russia that would almost certainly include a military response from the United States and its allies. And any attack on a NATO member such as Poland or one of Baltic states would trigger the alliance’s collective defense doctrine, leading to a wider European conflict in which Russia would be unlikely to prevail.

There would be geopolitical consequences too. “I would say that even China and India will have a quite harsh response, at least rhetorically, in case Russia detonates a nuclear bomb. Putin will risk losing his only friends if he does that,” Estonia’s outgoing spy chief Mikk Marran recently told Yahoo News.

None of this has stopped Putin from brandishing the possibility of nuclear annihilation several times during the war in Ukraine, despite the fact that several weeks before the invasion, five nuclear-armed states — including both Russia and the U.S. — issued a joint statement affirming that “nuclear weapons — for as long as they continue to exist — should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war. We believe strongly that the further spread of such weapons must be prevented.”

As Russian troops swept into Ukraine and the West rose to denounce the Kremlin, Putin put the nation’s nuclear forces on high alert and warned the nations allied against him of “consequences that you have never encountered in your history.”

A man walks his dog in front of a residential block hit by an early morning missile strike Feb. 25 in Kyiv,.

A man walks his dog in front of a residential block hit by an early morning missile strike Feb. 25 in Kyiv,. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

At the time, Biden downplayed the threat. Asked if there were reasons to worry about nuclear war during a February event at the White House, Biden answered with a single word: “No.”

In April, after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the threat of nuclear war as “serious,” Biden issued a more firm denunciation. “No one should be making idle comments about the use of nuclear weapons or the possibility of the need to use them,” he said.

Throughout the summer, Russia made few advances on the battlefield, as Western weapons continued to flow to Ukraine. Then, last month, a devastating Ukraine counteroffensive saw Russian forces retreat from occupied regions in the country’s war-torn eastern borderlands.

Even top Kremlin propagandists began to worry about the state of an invasion that was supposed to last a few days, but now had Putin dispatching hundreds of thousands of new soldiers to the frontlines. And some observers worried that an increasingly desperate Putin could salvage the invasion with the most terrifying weapons in his arsenal — weapons that had never been used before, except (as Putin himself is fond of reminded) by the United States against Japanese cities in World War II.

In a mid-September “60 Minutes” interview, Biden had a simple message for the Kremlin about a nuclear strike: “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. It would change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.”

An image of Russian President Vladimir Putin is displayed as President Biden speaks at the White House,

An image of Russian President Vladimir Putin is displayed as President Biden speaks at the White House, June 22. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The reality is that Biden can only do so much, other than meeting Putin’s rhetoric with his own. The White House knows that Russia is unlikely to leave Ukraine anytime soon but it hopes that, at the very least, the Kremlin can be convinced that the conflict does not have to devolve into unconventional, world-imperiling warfare.

“Putin seems to be more interested in not blinking than in getting out of the crisis,” says Nina Khrushcheva, a granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev who teaches at the New School in New York and recently returned from a stay in Moscow of several months. “The story is driven by its own sensationalism,” she said of the threatening rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin.

She says that Khrushchev “understood the human terms” of a potential conflict with the United States and never wanted the Cold War to lapse into mutual assured destruction.

“Putin is a direct descendant of Stalin,” Khrushcheva said, and described his apparent quest to reestablish a Russian empire as “insane.”

Indeed, the shift in Biden’s own tone has come as Putin’s ambitions have taken on increasingly dark and grandiose overtones. Putin and his top advisers now depict the war as a struggle between a morally upright Russia and a colonial, war-hungry West.

“We’re past Khrushchev,” Khrushcheva said, and poined out that the Cuban missile crisis lasted only 13 days. The war in Ukraine is now in its 8th month.

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