The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Armageddon’ warning reflects Biden’s instincts about Putin

The president’s stark comments were not prompted by Russia’s on-the-ground actions, aides say

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the signing ceremony for the annexation of four Ukrainian regions at the Kremlin on Sept. 30. (Getty Images Europe)
10 min

President Biden’s warning this week that Russia’s threats to use nuclear weapons amounted to the most serious “prospect of Armageddon in 60 years” was not based on any new intelligence or information collected by the government, U.S. officials said Friday, but rather Biden’s own assessment of what Russian President Vladimir Putin could be capable of.

Biden and other U.S. officials have harbored concerns in recent weeks that as the war continues to go poorly for Moscow, Putin would resort to increasingly drastic measures, said a senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

U.S. officials stressed on Friday that they had seen no evidence that Russia had taken the measures necessary to use its nuclear arsenal and that the United States has no reason to change its nuclear posture. But several officials said they are taking Putin’s threats seriously and have said the United States is engaged in direct back-channel conversations with the Russians about the repercussions of taking steps such as the use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

“We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture, nor do we have indications that Russia is preparing to imminently use nuclear weapons,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Friday. She added, “The kind of irresponsible rhetoric we have seen is no way for the leader of a nuclear-armed state to speak, and that’s what the president was making very clear about.”

Biden startled many Americans by saying at a fundraiser Thursday night that Putin, who he knows “fairly well,” was “not joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons.” 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.”

Biden suggested that the threat was reminiscent of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when the United States and Soviet Union came close to nuclear confrontation during the Cold War.

“My sense is this is clearly weighing really heavily on President Biden, and we can all say intellectually the risk of the use of nuclear weapons is low, but the reality is the risk has gone up,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

“At a very human level, he now has the potential to be a president who has to manage nuclear use for the first time in 70 years,” Kendall-Taylor said. “I maybe would have preferred he didn’t use the phrase 'nuclear … Armageddon,’ but I think it’s useful for the president and the administration to be having a conversation with the public about the risk.”

Why the world cares about Putin's tactical nukes

Biden’s comments were reflective of the long-held distrust he has harbored against Putin and his understanding of what Putin is willing to do to carry out his goals, U.S. officials and outside experts said. His skepticism about Putin began long before he became president — and long before Putin became one of the United States’ biggest adversaries.

Biden’s bleak assessment of Putin dates back at least to 2001, when President George W. Bush met the Russian leader for the first time shortly after he had come to power. While Bush heaped praise on him — describing him as “very straightforward and trustworthy” — Biden, then a senator from Delaware, disagreed, stating that he did not trust Putin.

Biden, who has focused on foreign policy throughout his career and chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, places a high value on his own instincts and assessments when it comes to evaluating foreign leaders and landscapes. During his presidential campaign, he often spoke of how many foreign leaders he had met personally, for example citing the long travels he took with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

While Biden’s mention of “Armageddon” was his most vivid warning yet, the president has been raising the alarm for weeks about Putin’s actions in Ukraine, including his staging of sham referendums in four Ukrainian territories and then annexing them. In a speech at the U.N. General Assembly last month, Biden addressed the referendums and nuclear threats directly, saying Moscow had “shamelessly” violated the core of the U.N. charter by forcefully invading its neighbor.

“Just today, President Putin has made overt nuclear threats against Europe, in a reckless disregard for the responsibilities of the nonproliferation regime,” Biden said. “A nuclear war cannot be won. And must never be fought.”

Annexations bring nuclear war closer

Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons since the beginning of the conflict in February, but officials said they have long recognized that the threat of such a strike would rise if Putin’s military position became imperiled in Ukraine. In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces have launched a counteroffensive and made significant gains on the battlefield.

But U.S. officials were at pains Friday to stress that nothing they have seen on the ground in recent days has prompted them to expect a potential nuclear strike in the short term.

“We have been doing contingency planning for a wide range of scenarios throughout the conflict,” a senior State Department official said. “But have not seen reason to adjust our strategic nuclear posture.”

State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel added, “We’ve not seen any reason to adjust our own nuclear posture, nor do we have any indications that Russia is preparing to imminently use weapons.”

Other senior U.S. officials said they believe any movement of Russian nuclear warheads would not only be detected through various monitoring methods, but would require detectable internal coordination and could be observed by U.S. surveillance in real time.

Still, a range of officials acknowledged that such methods are never 100 percent certain.

Asked Sunday whether the United States would actively enter the war if Putin used a nuclear weapon, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN, “I have said before that we have had the opportunity to communicate directly to Russia a range of consequences for the use of nuclear weapons and the kinds of actions the United States would take. I have also said before that we are not going to telegraph these things publicly.”

Some leaders suggested Friday that Biden’s comments were needlessly provocative. French President Emmanuel Macron said that “we must speak with prudence” on issues like nuclear weapons.

Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, also questioned Biden’s tone, saying it would be better for U.S. officials to make limited, calm statements in response to Putin’s nuclear threats.

“When you get into this kind of language of ‘Armageddon’ and ‘World War III’ as an official, I think you are raising the anxiety without actually conveying the deterrent threat,” Lewis said. “The primary message that the White House should be conveying at this point is strength and confidence.”

Still, he added, Putin could always miscalculate even if the White House messaging was flawless. “Even if they were doing it perfectly, there is going to be a risk that he misreads them, because he already did it with Zelensky,” Lewis said.

Other European officials noted that Putin is unpredictable and dangerous, saying Russian losses on the battlefield are creating a kind of pressure he has rarely faced before. For months, the war has not gone according to plan for Putin, and he has resorted to ever more brazen and far-reaching measures to try to stem his losses.

After making a failed run at Kyiv, the Russian military retreated from the Ukrainian capital in early April and refocused its efforts on taking more territory in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, an area known as Donbas.

The regroup shifted the conflict into more of a traditional artillery war. Russian troops seized a string of new cities and towns in June and July in a dispiriting moment for Ukrainian forces, which found themselves outgunned by Russia’s longer-range artillery.

But the United States and other European allies armed the Ukrainians with more sophisticated weapons, including the U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), and found ways to alleviate some ammunition shortages, helping to level the playing field.

By the time Kyiv launched its counteroffensive in late August, Putin’s forces had suffered significant losses and lacked the personnel to defend such a wide swath of territory. Russia’s front-line defenses in the Kharkiv region swiftly collapsed, and Ukrainian forces retook thousands of square miles in a rapid advance that has thrown Moscow off-balance.

In recent weeks, as Ukrainian forces have pushed farther, Putin resorted to a move U.S. intelligence sources had said he would try to avoid at all costs: ordering a partial military mobilization of up to 300,000 reservists. Putin had been reluctant to take the step earlier, cognizant that it could hamper domestic support of the war, and since the announcement, many Russian men have tried to flee the country to avoid conscription.

At the same time, Putin moved up the timeline for the sham referendums and annexations, declaring that the people living in the annexed regions would “be our citizens forever” and warning that the land now belonged to Russia and would be defended as if it were any other part of the country.

These urgent — some say desperate — actions form the backdrop for Putin’s escalation of his nuclear threats. Some analysts say the Russian president may see the threats as a way to make the United States and Europe think twice about letting Ukraine advance far enough to provoke the Kremlin into potentially using a weapon of mass destruction.

“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people,” Putin said Sept. 21. “This is not a bluff.”

Ukrainian forces have nonetheless continued advancing into territory Putin now claims as Russia’s. In a fiery speech last Friday during the ceremony to formally annex the Ukrainian territories, Putin warned that the United States had “created a precedent” when it used nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945.

“President Biden has a really good pulse on Putin and understands what Putin is capable of,” Kendall-Taylor said. “He deeply understands him, unlike a lot of Western leaders, and it makes this moment graver in his eyes.”

John Hudson contributed to this report.