President Joe Biden warned on Thursday evening that the risk of nuclear “armageddon” is at its highest level since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, as Russian officials speak of the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons after suffering massive setbacks in the eight-month invasion of Ukraine.
Mr Biden made the remarks at a fundraiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the party’s apparatus dedicated to defending incumbent Senators and electing Democratic Senators.
Mr Biden said he knew Russian President Vladimir Putin very well.
“We have not faced the prospect of armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis,” he said. “He’s not joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons because his military is you might say significantly underperforming.”
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Thursday that Russia had not changed its position that a nuclear war must never be fought. This came after Mr Putin said that he would use “all the means at our disposal” to defend Russia during its invasion of Ukraine. He also said that the United States set a precedent when it dropped two atomic weapons on Japan at the end of the Second World War.
But Mr Biden also challenged Russian nuclear doctrine, warning that the use of a lower-yield tactical weapon could quickly spiral out of control into global destruction.
“I don’t think there is any such a thing as the ability to easily use a tactical weapon and not end up with armageddon,” Mr Biden said.
The president also blamed the actions of his predecessor, former president Donald Trump, for the current crisis.
“I didn’t realize how much serious damage the previous administration did to our foreign policy,” he said.
US officials for months have warned of the prospect that Russia could use weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine as it has faced a series of strategic setbacks on the battlefield.
As recently as this week, though, they have said they have seen no change to Russia’s nuclear forces that would require a change in the alert posture of US nuclear forces.
Mr Biden also said he was trying to figure out what was the best way to de-escalate the crisis.
“I’m trying to figure out what is Putin’s off ramp?” he said. “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?”
Earlier, the US accused Russian mercenaries of exploiting natural resources in the Central African Republic, Mali, Sudan and elsewhere, using “these ill-gotten gains” to “fund Moscow’s war machine in Africa, the Middle East, and Ukraine”.
“Make no mistake: people across Africa are paying a heavy price for the Wagner Group’s exploitative practices and human rights violations,” ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told a UN Security Council meeting on the financing of armed groups through illicit trafficking of natural resources in Africa.
Wagner, staffed by veterans of the Russian armed forces, has fought in Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic, Mali and other countries. It was founded in 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and started supporting pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron has said that European countries will send Ukraine more military equipment to counter Russia’s invasion, including more French Caesar-type howitzers.
“We are working indeed on several requests, with several members of the EU, including on new Caesars,” the French president said, as European leaders met at the inaugural summit of the European Political Community in Prague.
On Thursday it was reported that two Russian men had arrived on a small Alaskan island as they tried to avoid being mobilised to fight in Ukraine.
With reporting from the Associated Press