US has privately warned Russia against using nuclear weapons in Ukraine for several months


The US has privately informed Russia in recent months that there will be consequences if Moscow chooses to use a nuclear weapon in the war in Ukraine, US officials say.

It was not immediately clear how and when the alerts were sent. According to an official, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was involved. The Biden administration also relied heavily on intelligence channels to relay sensitive messages to Moscow during the build-up and prosecution of Russia’s war in Ukraine, including recently in negotiations on wrongly detained Americans.

The warnings, first reported by The Washington Post, come as Russian President Vladimir Putin has again threatened to turn to nuclear weapons amid a series of embarrassing setbacks on the battlefield in Ukraine. In a speech 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 weapon systems at our disposal. This is not a bluff.”

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US officials have emphasized that this is not the first time Putin has threatened to turn to nuclear weapons since the start of his invasion of Ukraine in February, although some analysts view the threat as more specific and escalating than the Russian president’s earlier rhetoric.

The US has also tried in the past to dissuade Russia from using a nuclear weapon in public warnings and made the issue a topic of comment at the UN General Assembly this week in New York. State Secretary Antony Blinken said on Thursday that “Russia’s reckless nuclear threats must stop immediately”.

US President Joe Biden, who appeared in CBS’s “60 Minutes” last week, said his message to Putin if he were to consider the use of nuclear weapons was: “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.”

The US response would be “consistent” but would depend “on the magnitude of what they are doing,” Biden said, without providing further details.

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For now, top CIA officials have said publicly that they have seen no signs that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons. But some military analysts were concerned that Russia might try to use a so-called tactical or battlefield nuclear weapon in response to Ukraine’s poor display — a tactic sometimes called “escalate to de-escalate.” Intelligence officials believe Putin would likely turn to that option only if he felt Russia or his regime were in existential danger, and it’s not clear whether he would think losing his war in Ukraine would fit that description.

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