Biden's 'Armageddon' nuclear warning builds on increasing worries about a desperate Putin

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Last Thursday evening, President Joe Biden dropped a political bombshell when he said the world is now at the highest risk of nuclear "Armageddon" than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

For the first time since that Cold War confrontation began on Oct. 16, 1962 – nearly 60 years ago to the day – there now exists "a direct threat of the use of the nuclear weapon if, in fact, things continue down the path they've been going," Biden said.

The day before, one of the CIA’s top former spies on both the Russian geopolitical threat and weapons of mass destruction said something almost identical about the grave threat the planet faces thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mounting losses in Ukraine – and his increasingly threatening language about using a nuclear weapon to gain the upper hand in the conflict taking place in the heart of Europe.

Are Biden and the former top intelligence officer, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, correct? And what does Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons mean for the security of millions of people in Ukraine and around the world, including the United States, which Russian nuclear-tipped missiles can easily reach?

USA TODAY spoke to Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA official and a host of other nuclear security experts and analysts for answers.

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'How close are we to Armageddon?'

All of those experts agreed with Biden’s assessment that the current situation is fraught with potential danger, including if an increasingly cornered Putin decides to deploy one of the smaller nuclear weapons in his massive arsenal. That would most likely be a tactical nuclear warhead atop one of its highly accurate Iskander missiles. The detonation of even one of Russia’s least powerful nukes, they say, could kill potentially tens of thousands of people and render an area unlivable – or certainly inhospitable – for months if not years.

The concern is so great that the Bulletin of American Scientists may reset its “Doomsday Clock” to closer to midnight when it convenes next month in Chicago. It is currently at 100 seconds to 12 a.m.

Sharon Squassoni, who co-chairs the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board, the international group of experts who will gather to vote, said she could not discuss any international deliberations of the board, either on the Doomsday Clock or its other activities.

“How close are we to Armageddon?” asked Squassoni, who served three decades as a senior U.S. nuclear nonproliferation and arms control official. “It’s going to be a very interesting discussion. ... You can come up with any number of scenarios and we have to look at them all."

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Trump administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly criticized Biden recently for using "reckless language" in describing the current threat.

But one longtime U.S. defense and intelligence official, Elbridge Colby, said Putin's longstanding preoccupation with building up Russia's nuclear capabilities, combined with his current predicament in Ukraine, "leads me to think that it is a serious possibility" that he could detonate some kind of nuclear device, most likely in a battlefield setting.

"I've been struck that the Russians have put a lot of money and effort into overhauling their nuclear forces and modernizing them," said Colby, a former deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development. In 2017 and 2018, he served as the Pentagon's co-lead for the development of the U.S. National Defense Strategy.

"Putin himself seems to have put a lot of emphasis on it," Colby told USA TODAY. "In fact, I've been struck over time that, as I understand it, Putin considers himself a bit of a nuclear strategist, which is worrying since he's now in a bad situation from his point of view."

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How did we get to such a dangerous point?

Putin has been threatening to use nuclear weapons in his war on Ukraine for months. But U.S. intelligence and military officials became especially alarmed about the possibility after Putin’s speech Sept. 30, in which his threats became much more specific, and pointed.

In announcing Moscow's annexation of wide swaths of Ukraine. Putin falsely proclaimed that four Ukrainian regions were now part of the Russian Federation. And he said he would be justified in using any force necessary to protect Russian interests, implying that deploying nuclear weapons was one potential option.

In one especially alarming passage, Putin appeared to justify such a strike by suggesting that since the United States used a nuclear weapon to end World War II in the Pacific, he might use "all the means at our disposal" to end the current conflict in Ukraine.

“Everyone is struggling right now to figure out how far he is going to take this,” said Squassoni, a professor at George Washington University’s Institute for International Science and Technology Policy in Washington, D.C. “But that’s the conclusion I drew from his speech.”

Two days after Putin's speech, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the Biden administration has warned the Kremlin in the strongest possible terms that it cannot use nuclear weapons in Ukraine amid Moscow's growing battlefield setbacks in its war and its decision to call up thousands of reservists. Despite Putin's claims of victory, Russian troops have withdrawn from key strongholds in Donetsk Oblast and other top-priority areas it is attempting to "liberate."

"If Russia crosses this line, there will be catastrophic consequences for Russia," Sullivan said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "The United States will respond decisively.”

“In private channels,” Sullivan added cryptically, “we have spelled out in greater detail exactly what that would mean."

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy responded to Putin’s remarks by saying he did not believe the longtime Russian leader was bluffing.

Last Thursday night, Biden weighed in.

"We've got a guy I know fairly well," Biden said of Putin at a fundraiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “He's not joking when he talks about the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons, or biological or chemical weapons, because his military is, you might say, significantly underperforming."

"It’s part of Russian doctrine that ... if the motherland is threatened, they'll use whatever force they need, including nuclear weapons," Biden said.

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'We've never been here'

Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA Moscow station chief, stood up the spy agency’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Department in its Counterterrorist Center after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He has spent the past two decades watching closely the potentially intertwined threats of Russian aggression under Putin and its possible use of its nuclear arsenal, which is believed to be the world’s largest.

In an interview with former acting CIA director Michael Morell, Mowatt-Larssen said he has kept in touch with those within the U.S. and allied governments monitoring these threats, and that they are taking Putin’s saber rattling very seriously and “preparing for any number of options.”

There is “very intense wargaming going on, tabletop exercise type things, we call it in the government, that would assess what would be the ways that Putin might decide to do this and what would be our response accordingly,” Mowatt-Larssen said.

And, he told Morell on his podcast “Intelligence Matters,” “I don't think we should limit ourselves to thinking purely tactical nuclear weapons. It's almost unimaginable to think of the other things. But we've been through at least one time in our history … the Cuban Missile Crisis back in 1962, where the world was almost destroyed in a nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. And we shouldn't at least dismiss the possibility we may end up in a similar place today.”

“And as some experts that I really respect have recently written or stated, and I agree with them, we are at the highest point in nuclear risks than we've been since the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago,” Mowatt-Larssen said.

The 23-year CIA veteran put it in even starker terms in an interview with USA TODAY.

“We've never been here, in a place where it's clear that it's a possibility,” said Mowatt-Larssen, who also served three years as the director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy and its nuclear weapons programs. “And the reasons for it are pretty self-evident, given the extent to which the Russian army is failing, which it is, and the Ukrainians are strengthening, which they are. That makes it more likely because he has fewer and fewer options.”

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Why would Putin use nuclear weapons against Ukraine?

Traditional U.S. nuclear security doctrine has always been that most countries have such potent weapons not to actually use them, but primarily to deter their adversaries from using them and to gain their own geopolitical advantage merely by the threat of using them. That’s why Putin has been so aggressive in Ukraine, because he knows that without the threat of a nuclear World War III, the U.S. or NATO allies would have intervened directly in the Ukraine conflict long ago, according to nuclear security expert Matt Bunn.

Using that argument, Bunn and other nuclear security analysts worry that Putin could choose to detonate a nuclear weapon in Ukraine because Kyiv doesn’t have such weapons of its own, or allies that would use them on its behalf. Bunn notes that Washington and Ukraine’s other allies have been very specific in pledging billions in military aide while insisting they will not directly intervene and engage Russian troops.

The use of nuclear weapons has other huge disadvantages besides the threat of escalating a local or regional conflict into an all-out world war. The radioactive fallout would likely kill many thousands of civilians, destroy buildings and other critically important infrastructure and contaminate the food and water supply. That would render an area unfit for anyone – including Putin’s own forces.

And Russia has enough conventional military force to wreak that kind of damage without using nuclear weapons.

“But what really does make a difference is the fear that the power of nuclear weapons creates,” says Bunn, a former adviser to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy who now runs the nuclear proliferation program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “I worry about coercion; about the Russians using a few (nuclear warheads) on military targets and then saying, you know, ‘Agree to our terms or cities will be next.’”

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The Armageddon Option

Every war fought since the U.S first deployed an atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945 has included – however slight – the possibility of a nuclear exchange, especially if one or more of the global superpowers were involved.

The U.S. and its allies in NATO have been training for this for decades, as has the Soviet Union and, since its breakup, Russia, which essentially kept all of the weapons in the Soviet bloc’s nuclear arsenal.

Currently, Russia’s nuclear forces consist of both long-range, strategic systems – including intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers to deliver its most powerful nukes – and short and medium-range delivery systems, according to Amy Woolf, a specialist in nuclear weapons policy at the Congressional Research Service, the independent research arm of Congress that provides analysis for lawmakers.

In an April 2022 report prepared for Congress, Woolf said Russia is modernizing its nuclear forces, including replacing Soviet-era systems with new missiles, submarines and aircraft while developing new types of weapons.

Although Russia’s number of nuclear weapons has declined sharply since the end of the Cold War, Woolf reported, “it retains a stockpile of thousands of warheads, with more than 1,500 warheads deployed on missiles and bombers capable of reaching U.S. territory” – and certainly targets in and around Ukraine.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union pledged publicly that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. But since the breakup of the Soviet bloc in early 1992, and especially under Putin, Russia has dropped that pledge, Woolf concluded, and instead spent the past several decades integrating nuclear weapons into its warfighting plans.

This “evolving doctrine,” Woolf warned, “has led some U.S. analysts to conclude that Russia has adopted an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategy, where it might threaten to use nuclear weapons if it were losing a conflict with a NATO member, in an effort to convince the United States and its NATO allies to withdraw from the conflict.”

Even though Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the same logic would apply in the current conflict. That's because Putin has vowed to use nuclear weapons to protect Ukrainian territories that he claims are now part of Russia even as Ukraine has had success in taking them back.

“And that means Putin will be forced to confront a situation where either he carries out his threat or he's shown to be bluffing,” said Bunn. “A wounded and cornered animal is the most dangerous, and that's sort of where Putin is at the moment."

A more likely but still terrifying scenario

Most U.S. experts interviewed by USA TODAY believe even Putin wouldn’t dare to use a conventional nuclear weapon like the “Tsar Bomba” that it detonated almost 60 years ago in what is believed to be the world’s largest-ever thermo-nuclear explosion. The hydrogen bomb, dropped in October 1961 over an archipelago above the Arctic Circle, had the force of 50 million tons of conventional explosives, and created a huge fireball and 37 mile-high mushroom cloud, according to previously classified footage Moscow released in 2020.

Instead, Putin would likely use some of the thousands of “non-strategic,” or smaller and more tactical nuclear warheads that it can attach to one of its many missile systems, including the highly accurate Iskander missiles and target a specific area within Ukraine, according to Squassoni, Mowatt-Larssen, Bunn and Colby.

They say Russia has a wide range of options, including at least several thousand tactical nukes with varying yields that it could couple with an array of delivery systems, including a new ultra-fast hypersonic missile.

Even the smallest of those could cause horrific destruction, especially if Moscow decides to use a “ground burst” nuclear weapon that detonates on contact with the earth, as opposed to an “air burst” that explodes over a target area, said Bunn.

In a “ground burst” detonation, the explosive device penetrates the earth, sucking up an enormous amount of rock, dirt and other debris that it then contaminates as it goes up into a fireball. Then it comes down and renders uninhabitable an area of at least a few square miles, according to reports by the Federation of American Scientists.

“With an airburst, most of that nasty stuff goes way up into the upper atmosphere where it disperses, basically over the whole world, rather than locally,” causing far less radiation poisoning, Bunn said. “That’s how Hiroshima and Nagasaki got rebuilt quite quickly.”

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Decades of training for a tactical nuclear strike

In 2015, Colby, before his most recent Pentagon appointment, wrote a prescient report warning that the U.S. and its allies needed to pay more attention to the growing nuclear threat in Europe posed by an increasingly aggressive Russia.

Under Putin, Colby wrote in a paper, Russia already was focusing increasingly “on manipulating its large and diversified nuclear forces for strategic advantage.”

Colby, the grandson of a legendary CIA Director William Colby, warned that the most plausible “escalation pathway” would be for Moscow to attempt to use nuclear weapons to intimidate NATO forces into backing down, especially in some kind of conflict in Europe.

That included refining a strategy of using nuclear weapons “in tailored and pointed ways” that would not only demonstrate Russia’s willingness to “go nuclear,” Colby wrote, but also “shock the alliance, break its political cohesion, and ultimately compel it to … terminate a conflict on terms favorable to Russia.”

Colby, who co-founded and heads the Marathon Initiative, cited what he described as an official Kremlin document from 2003, “Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine,” that lays out how to use such tailored nuclear strikes as an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy to get adversaries to back down.

Russia’s clear willingness to use such tactics posed a significant challenge for Washington and NATO, Colby concluded, “neither of which currently appears adequately prepared or postured to respond effectively and appropriately to a conflict with Moscow, especially one involving nuclear weapons.”

“Indeed, there is significant evidence,” he wrote, “that Russia plans to make such higher-order capabilities part of a war with NATO.”

In an interview this week, Colby said he thinks Putin's threshold in Ukaine is even lower than it would be against NATO. "Why do they have thousands of nuclear weapons? Why have they spent so much time and money recapitalizing this capability if they don't think they might use it? To me, that just doesn't hold water."

Last Friday, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre was asked about Biden's use of the term "Armageddon" when referring to Putin and the possible use of nuclear weapons. She said there was no new intelligence that led Biden to use that term. He was just responding to Putin's "irresponsible rhetoric."

Biden himself was asked in a recent interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes what he would tell Putin about the potential use of nuclear – or chemical or biological – weapons.

"Don't. Don't. Don't,” was Biden’s response. “You will change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.”

Meanwhile, Reuters reported Wednesday that a senior NATO official said a Russian nuclear strike would change the course of the conflict and almost certainly trigger a “physical response from many allies, and potentially from NATO itself.”

Any use of nuclear weapons by Moscow would have "unprecedented consequences" for Russia, according to the official, who was attending NATO’s ministerial meeting in Brussels. The official, who Reuters did not identify, also said Moscow was using its nuclear threats mainly to deter NATO and other countries from directly entering its war on Ukraine.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Are Putin's Ukraine war setbacks pushing us closer to nuclear war?