Russian President Vladimir Putin’s implied threat to turn the Ukraine war into a broader nuclear conflict presents President Joe Biden with choices rarely contemplated in the atomic age, including whether to raise the alert level of U.S. nuclear forces.
This turn of events is all the more remarkable for the fact that less than a year ago, Putin and Biden issued a statement at their Geneva summit that seemed more in keeping with the idea that the threat of nuclear war was a Cold War relic. “Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” they agreed.
Putin on Sunday told his top defense and military officials to put nuclear forces in a “special regime of combat duty,” but it was not immediately clear how that might have changed the status of Russian nuclear forces, if at all. Russia, like the United States, keeps its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, on a high state of readiness at all times, and it is believed that Russian submarine-based nuclear missiles, like America’s, are similarly postured.
Putin indicated he was responding to economic sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western nations in recent days for his invasion of Ukraine, as well as “aggressive statements regarding our country,” which he did not further explain.
The Biden administration was assessing Putin’s move, which it said unnecessarily escalates an already dangerous conflict. In fact, Putin’s words amount to the kind of threat rarely heard even during the Cold War period, when vastly larger nuclear arsenals of the United States and the former Soviet Union threatened the world with nuclear Armageddon.
HOW DOES THIS CHANGE THE RISK OF NUCLEAR WAR?
U.S. officials, while disturbed by Putin’s words, indicated they did not know what he intends. But it is so rare for an American or Russian leader to issue an implied nuclear threat, particularly in the current context of the war in Ukraine, that the risk of it going nuclear cannot be dismissed. In Russia, like in the United States, the president has sole authority to order a nuclear strike.