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Putin has brought threat of nuclear conflict ‘back within the realm of possibility,’ U.N. chief says

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres speaks about the Russian invasion of Ukraine from the U.N. headquarters in New York on March 14. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
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U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said Monday that the prospect of nuclear conflict is “now back within the realm of possibility” after Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the alert levels of the country’s nuclear forces last month.

In remarks to reporters, Guterres called Putin’s move a “bone-chilling development” and said further escalation of the war in Ukraine would threaten all of humanity. “It’s time to stop the horror unleashed on the people of Ukraine and get on the path of diplomacy and peace,” he said.

Putin puts Russian nuclear forces on alert as Ukrainian civilian deaths mount

Guterres said he had also spoken with officials from countries including China, France, Germany, India, Israel and Turkey about mediation efforts that could end the war, which began after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Days after Russia’s initial attack, Putin said he had put his nuclear forces on alert in response to what he called the West’s “aggressive statements” and its escalating package of economic sanctions. It was the first time the Kremlin — which has the world’s largest nuclear stockpile — had made such an announcement since the Russian Federation replaced the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Biden administration has sought to de-escalate tensions. The week after Putin’s move, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the United States saw no reason to change its nuclear alert levels, while a senior Pentagon official told reporters that Putin’s “unnecessary and very escalatory” order had not resulted in “any noticeable muscle movements.”

Nine countries in the world have a combined nuclear arsenal containing 12,700 warheads, according to the Federation of American Scientists. About 90 percent of them are held by Russia and the United States, which have about 6,000 and 5,400 warheads, respectively.

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The prospect of nuclear war with Russia has deterred the United States and its NATO allies from setting up a no-fly zone in Ukraine or supplying the besieged country with fighter jets.

President Biden “has a responsibility to not get us into a direct conflict, a direct war with Russia, a nuclear power, and risk a war that expands even beyond Ukraine to Europe,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” earlier this month. “That’s clearly not our interest. What we’re trying to do is end this war in Ukraine, not start a larger one.”

Putin’s position as “a personalist dictator” means he has few constraints on his decision-making authority, wrote Caitlin Talmadge, an associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University, for The Washington Post. Putin probably views the current crisis as threatening not only his foreign policy goals, but also his domestic political prospects at home and his personal survival, she added.

This may make the Russian president more willing to gamble with nuclear threats than other leaders, she said, reflecting the escalatory dangers of Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling.

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