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How US is using strategic ambiguity to counter Putin’s nuclear threats

Biden administration officials have tiptoed around offering specifics in response to the specter of Russia using nuclear weapons, deploying a form of strategic ambiguity in an attempt to avoid escalating the conflict.

U.S. officials have in recent days repeatedly warned of severe consequences should Moscow deploy nuclear weapons in its war in Ukraine, though they have not outlined what those consequences would involve. And they have repeatedly said they are taking talk of nuclear weapons seriously, but have not publicly shifted the country’s nuclear posture in response. 

Experts say the U.S. approach is the right one, especially given the uncertainty around how serious Russian President Vladimir Putin is with his threat.  

“There’s no need to tell Putin what exactly we would do. This is where strategic ambiguity makes sense,” said David Kramer, who spent three years as deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs during the George W. Bush administration. 

“We should be mindful when a nuclear power threatens use of nuclear weapons, but we also should not be deterred from what we need to do,” Kramer added, arguing the U.S. and allies should not let Putin’s rhetoric undercut support for Kyiv. 

President Biden largely set the tone for the White House in a “60 Minutes” interview that aired earlier this month when he was asked what the consequences would be if Russia used nuclear or chemical weapons in its war in Ukraine. 

“You think I would tell you if I knew exactly what it would be? Of course I’m not going to tell you. It’ll be consequential,” Biden said. “They’ll become more of a pariah in the world than they ever have been. And depending on the extent of what they do will determine what response would occur.” 

Since Biden’s interview, Putin has raised the prospect of a nuclear response if the Russian homeland was attacked or if its opposition used nuclear weapons. He has also pressed ahead with a plan to officially annex major portions of Ukraine, potentially laying the groundwork to claim attacks on so-called new Russian territory as provocation for a nuclear strike. 

“This is not a bluff,” Putin warned in the nationally televised speech. “And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them.” 

White House officials have taken a uniformly vague approach in recent days when asked about a potential response to nuclear aggression by Russia. 

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said the White House had made the consequences of such action clear, but that it would not engage in a “rhetorical tit-for-tat.” 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration has a plan in the event Russia resorts to nuclear weapons, but he would not elaborate. 

And the Pentagon on Tuesday maintained that the government keeps “a whole host of capabilities and proven processes to address any potential threats of that kind,” according to press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder. 

“Our focus continues to remain on supporting Ukraine in their fight and working closely with our allies and partners in terms of Russian force posture,” Ryder said, adding that defense officials have not seen any major change or movement by Russia to ready its nuclear forces in any way. 

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor said this message is a smart one, adding that U.S. officials are likely preparing the responses to several different scenarios, if they haven’t already.  

“There are a lot of contingencies and a lot of different things that could be done,” said Taylor, who is now with the U.S. Institute of Peace. “We need to be firm, we need to prepare, we need to have a response if the Russians do something terrible. … Those plans presumably are there.” 

On Tuesday, key Putin ally Dmitry Medvedev doubled down on the message, warning that the Russian leader’s recent threat was exactly as stated and “definitely not a bluff,” according to a statement posted to Telegram.  

Medvedev, who took over as Russian president when Putin briefly ceded power in 2008, also laid out a scenario of a nuclear strike on Ukraine, claiming that NATO would be too concerned with “nuclear apocalypse” to directly respond to the attack.  

“Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons … if aggression with the use of conventional weapons threatens the very existence of our state,” said Medvedev, who now serves as deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council. “Without asking anyone’s permission, without long consultations. And it’s definitely not a bluff.” 

The comments, which are the bluntest official warning thus far and seem to raise the specter of a Russian nuclear strike, have not had any outward effect on U.S. officials. 

Ryder on Tuesday maintained that Washington continues to “take these threats seriously,” but has “not seen anything that would cause us to adjust our own nuclear posture at this time.” 

While the U.S. seeks to avoid a back-and-forth that could elevate the risk of nuclear war, some believe it remains unlikely that Putin would take such drastic measures anytime soon. 

Kramer, the former State Department official, expressed skepticism that Russian generals would be willing to carry out such an order and instead would view it as an act of desperation with significant consequences. 

He also noted that thus far, Putin has made multiple threats but has only really followed through on his pledge to cut off energy access for other countries. 

“None of this strikes me as a man confident in the hand that he’s playing,” Kramer said. 

And Taylor said it’s important that the U.S. “not be spooked” by Russia’s warnings.”

“We have to take it seriously, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. But “we certainly don’t want to be making compromises with ourselves. … And we can’t be deterred by comments that the Russians make in desperation.”

Tags Biden David Kramer Dmitry Medvedev Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin
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