The U.S. has privately communicated to Russia in recent months that there will be consequences if Moscow chooses to use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine, according to U.S. officials.
It was unclear how or when the warnings were sent. The State Department was involved, according to an official. The Biden administration has also relied heavily on intelligence channels to deliver sensitive messages to Moscow during the build-up and prosecution of Russia’s war in Ukraine, including negotiations over recently detained Americans.
The warning, first reported by The Washington Post, comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin has again threatened to resort to nuclear weapons amid a series of embarrassing setbacks on the battlefield in Ukraine. In a statement on Wednesday, he warned: “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the weapons systems at our disposal. This is not a bluff.”
US officials have pointed out that this is not the first time that Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons since he launched his invasion of Ukraine in February, although some analysts see this threat as more specific and heightened than the Russian president’s past rhetoric.
The US has also in the past sought to distance itself from Russia in public warnings against using nuclear weapons and has taken up the issue at the UN General Assembly in New York this week. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday that Russia’s “reckless nuclear threats must stop immediately”.
U.S. President Joe Biden appeared on CBS’ “60 Minutes” last week and, when considering Putin’s use of nuclear weapons, said: “Don’t do it. No. Don’t do it.”
The reaction of the US would be “consequence”, but it would “depend on the measure of what they do”, said Biden, without giving further details.
So far, senior CIA officials have said publicly that they have seen no signs that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons. But some military analysts have expressed concern that Russia might seek to use a so-called tactical or battlefield nuclear weapon in response to its poor showing in Ukraine, a tactic sometimes called “de-escalation.” Intelligence officials believe Putin would resort to that option if he felt Russia or his regime were in existential danger, and it’s unclear whether losing the war in Ukraine would fit that description.