WASHINGTON — When Vladimir V. Putin declared on Sunday that he was putting his nuclear forces in “special combat readiness” — a heightened alert state reminiscent of some of the Cold War’s most dangerous moments — President Biden and his aides had a choice.
They could emulate the move and put US troops on Defcon 3 — known to moviegoers as the moment when the Air Force rolls out bombers and nuclear silos and submarines are armed. Or the president could largely ignore it by dispatching aides to portray Mr Putin as imagining another threat and threatening Armageddon with a war he started without provocation.
At least for now, Mr. Biden chose to de-escalate. The US ambassador to the United Nations reminded the Security Council on Sunday afternoon that Russia was “not under threat” and reprimanded Putin for “another escalating and unnecessary step that threatens us all”. The White House made it clear that America’s own alert status had not changed.
But for many in the government, who spoke on condition of anonymity on Sunday, it was a stark reminder of how quickly Ukraine’s crisis could turn into a direct confrontation with superpowers — and how it can still do so as Putin tests how far can he go and threaten to use the ultimate weapon to get there.
And his outburst once again raised the question, which ran through American intelligence, about the state of mind of the Russian leader, a man previously described as pragmatic, calculating and cunning. Former director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., said publicly today what some officials have said privately since the Russian leader began accusing Ukraine of genocide and claiming it was developing nuclear weapons itself.
“Personally, I think he’s gone wild,” Mr Clapper told DailyExpertNews. “I’m concerned about his sharpness and poise.”
Others wonder whether Mr Putin wants to give that impression, to add to Washington’s unease. Similar concerns prompted the decision not to let Biden respond to Putin’s threats this weekend in Delaware. It was the second time in a week that Mr Putin reminded the world and Washington that he has a huge arsenal and might be tempted to use it. But what made the latest nuclear eruption notable was that it was staged for television as Mr Putin told his generals he was acting because of the West’s “aggressive comments” about Ukraine. Russia’s top military officer, Valery Gerasimov, sat with a deathly still face as Mr Putin issued his directive, leaving some to wonder what he was thinking and how he might respond.
“It was bizarre,” said Graham T. Allison of Harvard University, whose study of how the Kennedy administration handled the Cuban missile crisis, “Essence of Decision,” has been read by generations of international relations students — and many of the national security agencies. staff around Mr Biden today. Putin’s citation of “aggressive remarks” as justification for alarming one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals seemed both disproportionate and puzzling, he said. “It does not make any sense.”
Professor Allison, who worked on the project to dismantle thousands of nuclear weapons that once belonged to the Soviet Union, which centered on Ukraine, said the incident “raises concerns that Putin’s grip on reality may be loosening”.
The question now is how General Gerasimov will translate Mr Putin’s vaguely worded order for “special combat readiness” into action. The answer should be obvious within a day or two.
A massive nuclear-detection device operated by the United States and its allies keeps an eye on Russia’s nuclear forces at all times, and experts said they wouldn’t be surprised if Russian bombers were taken from their hangars and loaded with nuclear weapons, or submarines stuffed with nuclear weapons. weapons leave the harbor and go out to sea.
Both Russia and the United States conduct exercises that mimic different levels of nuclear alert status, so the choreography of such moves is well understood by both sides. A departure from usual practice would almost certainly be noticeable.
The ground-based nuclear forces – the intercontinental ballistic missiles kept in silos by both countries – are always on alert, a cornerstone of the “mutually assured destruction” strategy that disrupts nuclear exchanges in even the most tense moments of the world. Cold War.
Whatever one thinks of Mr Putin’s verdict, the decision to put the troops on readiness amid extraordinary tensions over the invasion of Ukraine was highly unusual. It came just days after he warned the United States and other NATO powers to stay out of the conflict, adding that “the consequences will be like you’ve never seen in your entire history.”
It has, at least for now, brought an end to discussions between Russia and the United States about what to do in four years’ time, when the only remaining nuclear treaty between the two countries, called the New START, expires. The treaty limits each side to 1,550 strategic weapons deployed, less than tens of thousands at the height of the Cold War. But that’s not the case with smaller, tactical weapons designed for use on the battlefield, a major concern in the current crisis. Just as Mr Putin claimed last week that the United States had plans to place such weapons on Ukrainian soil — one of his many justifications for the invasion — US officials fear Mr Putin’s next move is to place them in Ukraine. , if he succeeds in conquering the country, and in Belarus.
Until last week, the two countries met regularly to discuss new gun control regimes, including a revival of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2019. But the United States said last week it was suspending those talks.
The immediate concern is that an increased alert level, by design, relaxes safeguards on nuclear weapons, making it more likely that they could be used accidentally or by design.
In recent years, Russia has adopted a doctrine that lowers the threshold for using nuclear weapons and for publicly threatening to unleash their forces in deadly nuclear attacks.
Understand the Russian attack on Ukraine
What is the basis of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine to be within its natural sphere of influence, and it has become nervous about Ukraine’s proximity to the West and the prospect of the country becoming a member of NATO or the European Union. Although Ukraine is part of neither, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.
“It’s what he does,” Hans M. Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, a global policy think tank based in Washington, said in an interview. “It’s verbal saber-rattling. We’ll see where he goes. This war is four days old and it has already made nuclear threats twice.”
Mr Kristensen noted that in 2014, when Mr Putin annexed Crimea, the peninsula of southern Ukraine jutting into the Black Sea, the Russian president also raised the possibility that his troops could switch to nuclear weapons. He recalled that when Mr Putin was asked how he would respond to retaliatory sanctions by the West, he “prepared to put his nuclear forces on alert”.
Mr Putin’s announcement on Sunday came hours after Europe and the United States announced new sanctions, including banning some Russian banks from using the SWIFT financial messaging system, which settles international accounts, and crippling the economy. ability of the Russian central bank to stabilize a declining ruble.
Matthew Kroenig, a professor of government and foreign services at Georgetown University who specializes in nuclear strategy, said history was full of instances where nuclear powers threatened to unhing their arsenals. He pointed to the Berlin crisis of the late 1950s, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, a border war between the Soviet Union and China in 1969, the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 and a war between India and Pakistan in 1999.
He also noted that Mr. Trump had made similar threats against Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, after his forces conducted a series of long-range missile tests. In his first year in office, 2017, Mr. Trump threatened with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”.
Mr Putin’s outburst reminded many nuclear pundits of one of Mr Trump’s tweets, in which he noted: “North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has just stated that the ‘nuclear button is always on his desk’. Can someone from his exhausted and food-starved regime please tell him I also have a nuclear button, but it’s a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my button works!”
Mr Trump later insisted the threat had been calculated and that he had brought Mr Kim to the negotiating table for a series of three high-profile meetings between the two leaders. But talks collapsed and Mr Kim’s nuclear stockpile is now significantly larger, by most unclassified estimates, than it was before Mr. Trump made the threat.
“Nuclear-armed states cannot wage nuclear wars because it would risk their extinction, but they can and will threaten it,” noted Dr. Crown on Sunday. “They’re playing nuclear chicken games, of raising the risk of war to the hope that the other side will back off and say, ‘Gosh, this isn’t worth fighting a nuclear war over.'”
Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists said the threats could be empty unless accompanied by evidence that nuclear weapons are being taken out of storage and prepared for action.
“Unless we see things like that,” Mr Kristensen said, “it’s rhetoric — it’s insane brinkmanship.”