Administration

The Memo: Biden’s ‘armageddon’ warning raises fresh questions

President Biden’s warning about the possibility of ‘armageddon’ rumbling from the battlefields of Ukraine has scrambled an already complicated picture in the eight-month conflict.

Biden made the sharp warning during an appearance at a Democratic fundraiser on Thursday. 

But White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, asked Friday if there were any new intelligence assessments that had caused Biden to “ratchet up the level of concern,” responded: “No.”

Jean-Pierre sought to cast the president’s words as a general warning about the dangers of an escalation and as a riposte to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s saber-rattling — not as an actual prediction that there would be a nuclear attack.

“We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture, nor do we have indications that Russia is preparing to imminently use nuclear weapons,” the press secretary told reporters on board a short Air Force One flight to Hagerstown, Md.

The debate over Biden’s comments is in many ways a classic Washington back-and-forth, focused on the question of whether the president’s words were out of whack with intelligence assessments and whether the White House will now have to walk them back.

But the bigger picture is more important, and starker.

Ukraine has made startling gains against Russian forces in recent weeks, taking back enormous swathes of territory that Putin’s troops once held. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed late Thursday night that his forces had liberated more than 500 square kilometers of territory since the beginning of this month alone, after having run up much bigger gains throughout September.

But the Ukrainian gains have had the grimly ironic effect of making Putin more desperate— and more willing to countenance the kinds of tactics that have not previously been used since the Kremlin launched the invasion in February.

Putin has announced a compulsory mobilization effort that could yield 300,000 troops, and four faux referenda in eastern regions of Ukraine have been held. 

The regions are largely under armed occupation and so the results — which purportedly showed two of the regions voting by 99 percent and 98 percent, respectively, to become part of Russia — were rejected by the international community. 

In tandem, Putin has ramped up fears that he is prepared to use some form of nuclear weapon.

“Our country has various means of destruction,” he said last month. “When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened … we will certainly use all the means at our disposal.” 

The Russian president added, “It’s not a bluff.” 

In a speech last week, he said that the United States had created a “precedent” for the use of nuclear weapons by its atomic bomb attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War.

The idea that Putin might use nuclear weapons causes outrage for obvious reasons. But it has also stirred discussion as to what the United States and its allies might do in response.

The Biden administration has been adamant that it will not put American “boots on the ground” in Ukraine, even as it backs Kyiv with billions of dollars in military aid. 

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said last month that the U.S. had warned Russia that there would be “catastrophic” consequences in the event of such a move.

But it’s simply not clear what those consequences might be. Experts advance various different ideas, most of which stop short of a direct American military attack.

“I would expect NATO would respond through the Ukrainians,” said Robert Wilkie, who served as under secretary of Defense during the Trump administration and is now a distinguished national security fellow at the America First Policy Institute. 

He suggested this could be done by using weapons supplied by the U.S. and other Western powers “to complete the encirclement of Putin’s troops in Crimea — meaning weapons would be used to take out their lines of retreat there, but NATO forces would never touch the ground in Ukraine.”

Joel Rubin, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of State during the Obama administration, cautioned against the idea that the use of nuclear weapons by Putin would necessarily be expected to bring a symmetrical and instant response.

“There is a narrative from some folks that if he uses nukes, we have to use nukes. But there is no winner in a nuclear war — everyone loses,” Rubin said. 

Instead, he suggested, “all options would be available and nuclear would be one of them, but that is not the preferred choice. There would certainly be new moves to completely cut Russia off from every actor on the planet, whereas now China and Saudi Arabia are still giving oxygen to this leader.”

“Maybe that would be enough,” Rubin added of such isolation. “Who knows?”

The element of uncertainty, however, is one of the most unsettling elements of the current moment.

In some ways, it is the kind of scenario for which Biden is well-prepared. 

He was steeped in foreign policy throughout his decades in the Senate, including a stretch as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. His career has been long enough to encompass an era when there were real worries about nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Biden’s handling of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has won a degree of approval even from some ideological opponents, especially regarding his effectiveness in assembling and maintaining an international coalition.

On the other hand, there is a legitimate question of whether he overstepped with the “armageddon” remark, perhaps raising the very tensions he is seeking to ease.

Wilkie, the Trump administration veteran, called it “very disturbing” that Biden would make such a remark apparently off-the-cuff at a fundraising dinner.

The gravity of the situation, Wilkie argued, “demands going to the American people and explaining what’s at issue and what’s at stake — instead of these off-script, ‘I’m a tough guy’ moments.”

But even Wilkie acknowledged that, for Putin, the nuclear threats were “a sign of desperation.”

The worry, across Washington and the world, is where that desperation might lead.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Biden Joe Biden Karine Jean-Pierre nuclear weapons Nuclear weapons russia Russian invasion of Ukraine ukraine Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky
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