The US has sent back channel warnings to Russia against using a nuclear weapon

The United States has been sending private communications to Moscow for months warning the Russian leadership of the dire consequences of using a nuclear weapon, U.S. officials say, and the messages underscore what President Biden and his aides have said publicly.

The Biden administration has generally chosen to keep warnings about the consequences of a nuclear strike deliberately vague, leaving the Kremlin worried about how Washington might react, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive discussions.

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 amid a domestic mobilization aimed at halting Russian military losses in eastern Ukraine.

The State Department has engaged in private communications with Moscow, but officials would not say who delivered the messages or the extent of their content. It was not clear whether the United States had sent any new private messages in the hours since Russian President Vladimir Putin made his latest veiled nuclear threat during a partial mobilization speech early Wednesday, but a senior U.S. official said communications had been consistent. last months.

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Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev wrote in a Telegram post on Thursday that the territory of eastern Ukraine “will be incorporated into Russia” after the completion of the staged “referendums” and promised to strengthen security in those areas.

Medvedev said Russia could use not only its newly mobilized forces to defend this annexed land, but also “any of Russia’s weapons, including strategic nuclear weapons and weapons using new principles,” referring to hypersonic weapons.

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

The comment came a day after Putin suggested that Russia annex occupied lands in southern and eastern Ukraine and formally incorporate those areas into Moscow’s territory. He said he was not bluffing when he promised to use all means at Russia’s disposal to defend the country’s territorial integrity, a veiled reference to the country’s nuclear arsenal.

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

Nevertheless, recent statements from the Russian leadership are more specific than previous comments and come at a time when Russia is on the battlefield due to the US-backed counter-invasion of Ukraine.

While earlier statements by the Kremlin appeared to be aimed at warning the United States and its allies against going too far in helping Ukraine, Putin’s latest comments suggested that Russia is considering using a nuclear weapon on the Ukrainian battlefield to freeze progress and pressure Kiev and its supporters. down, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Gun Control Association, a Washington non-proliferation advocacy group.

“Everyone needs to understand that this is one of, if not the most serious episode where nuclear weapons may be used in decades,” Kimball said. “The consequences of even 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 called “battlefield nukes,” to end a conventional war favorably on its own terms, a strategy sometimes described as “escalation to de-escalation.”

Vadym Skibitsky, the deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, told the UK’s ITV News on Thursday that it was possible that Russia would use a nuclear weapon against Ukraine “to stop our offensive and destroy the country”.

“This is a threat to other countries,” Skibitskyi said. “The explosion of a tactical nuclear weapon will affect not only Ukraine, but also the Black Sea region.”

The Ukrainians have tried to signal that even a Russian nuclear strike would not force them to capitulate – and in fact, it could have the opposite effect.

“Threatening Ukrainians with nuclear weapons?” Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted on Wednesday. “Putin hasn’t figured out who he’s dealing with yet.”

In an interview on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday, Biden was asked what he would say to Putin if the Russian leader considered using nuclear weapons in the conflict against Ukraine.

“Don’t. Don’t. Don’t,” Biden said. “You’re changing the face of war differently since World War II.”

Biden declined to specify how the U.S. would respond, saying only that the response would be “consequence” and depend on “the extent of their actions.”

The Biden administration would face a crisis if Russia were to use a small nuclear weapon in Ukraine, which is not a US treaty ally. Any direct US military response against Russia risks the outbreak of a wider war between nuclear-armed superpowers – something the Biden administration has made a priority throughout its Ukraine policymaking.

Matthew Kroenig, a professor of government at Georgetown University and director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, has argued that the administration’s best option for a limited nuclear strike by Russia in Ukraine may be to opt out. support Ukraine and deliver a limited conventional strike against Russian forces or bases that initiated the attack.

“If a nuclear attack was launched by Russian forces in Ukraine, the United States could launch a direct strike against those forces,” Kroenig said. “It would be calibrated to send a message that this is not a major war coming, this is a limited strike. If you’re Putin, what are you going to do in response? I don’t think you’re going to immediately say we’re going to nuke all of the US.

But even a limited conventional strike by the U.S. military against Russia would be seen as reckless by many in Washington, who would argue against risking 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 there is no point in playing out U.S. responses now because there are so many Russian actions, from an underground nuclear test that doesn’t hurt anyone to a large-scale explosion that kills tens of thousands of civilians. – and there are no signs that Putin is close to crossing the threshold.

“If he was really thinking very seriously about using nuclear weapons very soon, he would almost certainly want us to know that,” Acton said. “He would rather threaten to go nuclear and let us make concessions than actually go down the path of going nuclear.”

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US officials have stepped up efforts at the UN General Assembly this week to dissuade Russia from seriously considering what would be the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict since the 1945 US atomic bombing of Japan.

Speaking at the UN Security Council on Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia’s “reckless nuclear threats must be stopped immediately”.

“This week, President Putin said that Russia will not hesitate to use, and I quote, ‘all available weapons systems’ in response to a threat to its territorial integrity — a threat that is all the more threatening given the Russians’ intent to annex large swathes of Ukraine in the coming days,” Blinken said. “When this is over, we can expect President Putin to take Ukraine’s efforts to liberate this land as an attack on so-called Russian territory.”

Blinken noted that Russia joined the other permanent members of the Security Council in January in signing a joint statement declaring: “Nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”

Hudson announced at the United Nations in New York.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

Last: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on September 21, portraying the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against the West, which seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” .” Follow our live updates here.

Combat: Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive has forced Russia into a major retreat northeast of Kharkiv in recent days as troops fled towns and villages they had occupied since the beginning of the war and left behind large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: According to Russian news agencies, the separatist Lugansk and Donetsk regions in Eastern Ukraine will take place on 23-27 referendums staged in September, which would be illegal under international law. The Moscow-appointed administration will hold another phased referendum in Kherson on Friday.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground since the war began—here are some of their most powerful works.

How you can help: Here are ways people in the US can help the people of Ukraine and what people around the world have donated.

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