WASHINGTON DC – Speaking at a Democratic fundraiser event in New York on Thursday evening (6 October), the US president Joe Biden said, “For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat of the use [of a] nuclear weapon if in fact things continue down the path they are going.” He added, “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”
The president wasn’t exactly saying anything new – the Russian president Vladimir Putin has issued barely veiled threats to use nuclear weapons in his war in Ukraine, and, if he does, the world will be in new, grim territory – but Biden was speaking more frankly than his aides have done. (The administration’s official line has been that it is taking the threats seriously in principle, but has not seen any change in the Kremlin’s behaviour.) Biden also said that he was trying to figure out how Putin could de-escalate. “Where does he find himself in a position that he does not not only lose face but lose significant power within Russia?” he mused aloud.
Throughout his time in office, and in fact throughout his time in politics, Biden has had a reputation for speaking at great length and for saying more than he probably should (particularly at fundraisers). He’s not wrong to say that people could be destroyed if Putin uses nuclear weapons, but whether this is effective political or foreign policy messaging from the American president is another matter. (Given that this was at a donor event, it’s unlikely they were purposely intended to reach Moscow. Especially given that Biden has addressed Putin directly before, saying, for example, that the latter should not “misunderstand” the former’s promise to defend every inch of Nato territory. Still, he must have been aware the message would leak. If not, he should have been.)
Yet it is reassuring that the president takes the threat of nuclear force seriously. His predecessor threatened to hit the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with “fire and fury”; Biden, on the other hand, is outlining the consequences of such a threat. One might also ask: if nuclear weapons can only end in Armageddon, perhaps it would behoove those in power to do what they can to get rid of them so that those threats cannot be made in the first place.
The US has, from the beginning, been wary of the war in Ukraine escalating and spiralling into something much larger. It did not, for example, put in place a no-fly zone, because that would have put America in direct confrontation with Russia. And earlier this week, US officials spoke to the New York Times to say that they believed Ukraine (though not necessarily the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky) was behind the August murder of Daria Dugina, daughter of the Russian nationalist Alexander Dugin, inside Russia. That divulgence to the press could be read as a warning to Ukraine not to take similar actions in the future, given the potentially unintended consequences that could ensue.
One twist of these times is that it is Biden – king of the gaffe, of saying too much then walking it back – who is now charged with reminding Americans and others around the world of how quickly and easily those unintended consequences could happen as a result of ill-conceived actions.
[See also: Vladimir Putin’s game of nuclear blackmail]