Is Biden's 'Armageddon' talk helpful or 'reckless'?

President Biden.
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President Biden warned last week that Russian President Vladimir Putin's threat to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine raised "the prospect of Armageddon" to a degree not seen since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. "We're trying to figure out: What is Putin's off-ramp?" Biden said in a New York fundraiser. "Where, where does he get off? Where does he find a way out? Where does he find himself in a position that he does not — not only lose face, but lose significant power within Russia?"

Biden's message, says David E. Sanger in The New York Times, was that "he was heeding one of the central lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis," which was that it was important to leave room for the kind of negotiations that defused the Cuban Missile Crisis by avoiding pushing "Putin's back to the wall, forcing him to strike out." But critics and even some allies said it was dangerous to bring talk of possible nuclear war into the open, because any misstep could be costly. French President Emmanuel Macron said it was important to "speak with prudence" about such matters. Mike Pompeo, who served as former President Donald Trump's secretary of state, called Biden's ramped-up rhetoric "reckless." Is Biden helping to rally support for finding an "off-ramp" in Ukraine, or is he making the situation more dangerous?

Biden was right to sound the alarm

The president's "warning is well founded," says Katrina vanden Heuvel in The Nation. Russian TV, military blogs, and top Kremlin ally Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, have recently called for using "low-yield nuclear weapons" to boost the Kremlin's stalled war effort in Ukraine. Putin has said he is willing to use "all means" to win. "It's impossible to know whether Putin is willing to follow through on his threat."

Invoking the memory of the Cuban missile crisis underlines how high the stakes are. It's also a reminder that "even in the face of potential nuclear devastation, de-escalation is possible and diplomacy can prevail." It does no good to bury our heads in the sand. "Levelheaded discussion is essential to avoiding certain doom," and there can be no honest dialogue without acknowledging "the threat of obliteration" Russia, and all of us, would face if Russia's invasion of Ukraine is allowed to escalate into a nuclear conflict.

If Biden wanted to project strength, he failed

Biden's talk of Armageddon was hardly reassuring, says The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. "He succeeded mainly in demonstrating his own anxiety, which isn't the right message to send Vladimir Putin or the American people." It's especially troubling that Biden made his remarks about the threat of apocalypse at a cocktail party meant to show off the reasons for voting for Democrats. "Pass the canapes and make my next drink a double."

This sounded like another one of "Biden's random soliloquies" the White House is always having to walk back. It is not at all clear Putin "believes in the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent." Putin certainly didn't buy Washington's threat of "consequences" before he made "the catastrophic mistake of invading Ukraine." Putin must be thinking right now that "Biden is looking for his own off-ramp, and that maybe escalating with a nuclear explosion would cause Mr. Biden and Europe to give him a ramp that includes a large chunk of Ukraine."

This shows we need arms control

Biden's invoking of Armageddon reflects "the long-simmering unease over the Russian leader's nuclear threats," says Julian Zelizer at CNN. It's also a reminder we've left nuclear arms control on the back-burner way too long. As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, President George H.W. Bush and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev Gorbachev signed Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) I, making "deep cuts in each nation's nuclear arsenal." More recently, other problems have grabbed our attention, such as terrorism and the pandemic. And former President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement with Iran in 2018 "(subsequently, Iran has escalated its nuclear arms program)." The next year the U.S. also withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Agreement (INF) then-President Ronald Reagan signed in 1987. Trump also scrapped the Open Skies Treaty, which reduced the risk of war by enabling "participants to conduct surveillance flights to foster transparency."

"It's time to make nuclear arms control a priority once again." Biden tried to "kick-start" the issue "by extending the New START nuclear treaty with Russia until 2026," but it will take more than that to "make the world safer." Back in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, nearly all of the world's nukes were in the hands of two superpowers. The picture is more complicated now. "The reach of these weapons of mass destruction is much wider and control over their usage is more difficult than it was in 1962." It will take "innovative thinking" to reduce the threat of a nuclear strike and get back on the track toward a nuclear-free world.

Missile defense is the answer

The threat of a nuclear strike is indeed "at its highest since the Cold War," says the National Review in an editorial, but instead of "talking loosely about the worst-case scenarios with Democratic donors, Biden should explain to the nation the dangers and how we intend to deter Putin from going down this route." The bottom line is that "if we are going to have any hope of stopping or significantly degrading a major nuclear attack on the United States, we need to develop a space-based defense."

Some people dismiss this as "the stuff of science fiction," and there was a time when it was. "But the cost of launching satellites has drastically diminished thanks to the work of Elon Musk." Technology has come a long way since the first talk of a Star Wars defense system more than 30 years ago. "We need sensors in space to better track launches for our current systems and should work in earnest on directed-energy lasers to take out intercontinental missiles in space." A "truly layered defense" would give us several shots to take out any incoming missile. "All this would be expensive, but not nearly as costly as one day losing an American city."

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