U.S. officials said the messages underscore what President Biden and his advisors have said publicly.
The Biden administration has kept warnings about the repercussions of a nuclear strike purposefully ambiguous, officials say, so the Kremlin worries about how Washington may respond.
The White House’s attempt to promote “strategic ambiguity” comes as Russia escalates its rhetoric about nuclear weapons use amid a public mobilization to stem Russian military losses in eastern Ukraine.
State Department officials won’t reveal who delivered the texts or what they said. It’s unclear if the U.S. has sent any fresh private messages since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s last veiled nuclear warning early Wednesday, but a senior U.S. official said the communication has been consistent in recent months.
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, tweeted Thursday on Telegram that eastern Ukraine would be “admitted into Russia” after staged “referendums” and vowed to improve their security.
To defend the annexed area, Medvedev warned, Russia can deploy “any Russian weapon, including strategic nuclear ones and those employing new principles”
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The comment came a day after Putin said Russia will seize occupied provinces in Ukraine’s south and east. He said he wasn’t bluffing when he pledged to use Russia’s nuclear arsenal to defend its territorial integrity.
Biden administration officials say this isn’t the first time the Russian leadership has threatened to use nuclear weapons since the war began on Feb. 24. They say there’s no indication Russia is relocating its nuclear weapons in preparation for an impending strike.
Recent Russian pronouncements are more precise than prior comments and come as Russia reels from a U.S.-backed Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Putin’s recent comments suggested Russia is considering using a nuclear weapon on the battlefield in Ukraine to freeze gains and force Kyiv and its backers into submission, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.
“This is one of, if not the most, serious nuclear incidents in decades,” Kimball added. Even a ‘limited nuclear war’ would be disastrous.
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U.S. nuclear specialists have fretted for years that Russia may employ smaller tactical nuclear weapons, frequently called “battlefield nukes,” to conclude a conventional conflict favorably on its terms.
Deputy chief of Ukrainian military intelligence Vadym Skibitskyi warned ITV News that Russia may deploy nuclear weapons against Ukraine “to stop our offensive activity and to destroy our state.”
Skibitskyi: “Other countries are threatened.” A nuclear bomb will affect Ukraine and the Black Sea region.
The Ukrainians have tried to telegraph that even a Russian nuclear strike wouldn’t force them to capitulate.
“Nuclear threats… to Ukraine?” Wednesday, Volodymyr Zelensky adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted. Putin doesn’t know who he’s up against.
Biden was asked on CBS’s “60 Minutes” what he would advise Putin if he considered using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
“Don’t. Don’t. Biden responded, “Don’t.” “You’ll change war since World War II.”
Biden said the U.S. response will be “consequential” and depend on “what they do.”
If Russia used a small nuclear weapon on Ukraine, a non-U.S. partner, the Biden administration would face a dilemma. Any direct military U.S. retaliation against Russia would threaten a larger nuclear conflict, which the Biden administration wants to avoid.
Matthew Kroenig, a Georgetown University government professor and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, argues that the best option for the administration, if faced with a limited Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine, might be to step up support for Ukraine and conduct a limited conventional strike on the attacking Russian forces or bases.
If Russian soldiers in Ukraine initiated the nuclear attack, the US might strike directly, Kroenig warned. “It would signal that this is not a huge conflict, but a limited strike. Putin’s response: You don’t say, “Let’s shoot all the nukes at the US.”
Many in Washington would see even a limited conventional strike against a nuclear-armed Russia as foolhardy.
James M. Acton, co-director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s nuclear policy program, said it doesn’t make sense to game out U.S. responses because there’s such a wide range of possible Russian actions, from an underground nuclear test to a large-scale explosion that kills tens of thousands of civilians, and there are no signs Putin is close to crossing the threshold.
Acton: “If he was truly considering unleashing nuclear weapons imminently, he’d want us to know.” “He’d rather threaten nuclear weapons and get concessions than use them.”
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U.S. officials are ratcheting their efforts at the U.N. General Assembly this week to prevent Russia from considering the first use of a nuclear weapon in a battle since 1945.