The United States has warned Russia that there will be “catastrophic” consequences if Moscow uses nuclear weapons after setbacks in its war in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened again that he could resort to weapons of mass destruction when he escalated the conflict last week by summoning and annexing military reservists to occupied territories gathering votes to join Russia.
With its mobilization effort facing domestic backlash and Kiev’s armed forces pushing to make new gains after their stunning counteroffensive, two top US officials said on Sunday that Washington has made clear to Moscow how strong the Kremlin’s response would be if it were in the case of a nuclear attack.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC News “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the consequences “would be catastrophic if Russia went down the dark road of using nuclear weapons.”
Pressured by host Chuck Todd about what those countermeasures would be, Sullivan merely said, “In private channels, we’ve spelled out in more detail what that would mean.”
State Secretary Antony Blinken used similar language in an interview with CBS News’ ’60 Minutes’.
“It’s very important that Moscow hear from us and know from us that the consequences would be dire, and we made that very clear,” Blinken said, adding that the US response would be “catastrophic” without working out .
Putin has leveled a series of nuclear threats against Ukraine and the West as a whole since launching his invasion just over seven months ago. But last week, he dramatically ramped up Russian efforts, signaling his willingness to escalate rather than accept defeat on the battlefield.
In a speech to the nation on Wednesday, Putin said that if Russia’s “territorial integrity” were to be threatened, “we will certainly use all available means” to retaliate – adding “it is not a bluff”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said he believes the Russian president.
“I don’t think he’s bluffing,” Zelenskyy told CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday. “He wants to scare the whole world. These are the first steps of his nuclear blackmail.”
Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world with nearly 6,000 warheads and 1,500 of them currently in use, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institutean independent think tank that tracks global inventories.
The Kremlin’s thinly veiled threats come against the background of votes being held in four regions of southern and eastern Ukraine that its forces at least partially control: Luhansk and Donetsk, Zaporizhzhya and Kherson. Western officials have dismissed these as sham votes with predetermined results.
Putin’s warnings come after a series of setbacks for the Kremlin.
The impending annexation and nuclear threats are seen by analysts as a combined effort to deter Western aid to Ukraine and to stem the tide of a pair of counter-offensives that have cast doubt on Russia’s long-standing hold over those occupied territories.
When asked whether Moscow would consider using nuclear weapons to defend these regions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday they would be under the “full protection of the state”.
Two months after the invasion, Putin’s army withdrew from a costly and ultimately unsuccessful attack on the Ukrainian capital Kiev, choosing instead to concentrate its forces in the east of the country where it has been supporting pro-Russian separatists since 2014 .
In recent weeks, however, Ukraine has shown strong resistance in those areas as well, resulting in heavy Russian losses and rare domestic unrest from pro-war nationalists.
As a result, unknown thousands of Russian citizens have been rounded up to be sent to the front lines. It has also led to an exodus of Russians who tried to flee the draft, clog border crossings and seize available flights.