Vladimir V. Putin announced on Sunday that he was placing his nuclear forces into “special combat readiness,” a state of high alert that recalled some of the most dangerous moments of the Cold War. President Joe Biden and his aides were faced with a difficult decision: they could either ignore the announcement or respond forcefully.
In response, they may activate Defcon 3, which is known to moviegoers as the point at which the Air Force deploys bombers and nuclear silos and submarines are placed on high alert, among other things. Alternatively, the president may choose to mostly ignore it, dispatching advisors to paint Mr. Putin as once again creating a threat, threatening Armageddon in retaliation for a conflict he initiated without provocation.
For the time being, Mr. Biden has chosen to de-escalate the situation. On Sunday afternoon, the United States ambassador to the United Nations reminded the Security Council that Russia was “not under danger” and chastised Russian President Vladimir Putin for taking “another escalatory and irresponsible action that risks us all.” In a statement, the White House said that the United States’ own alert status had not been modified.
It was a stark reminder to many in the administration, who spoke on the condition of anonymity on Sunday, how quickly the Ukraine crisis could spiral into a direct superpower confrontation — and how it may yet do so, as Mr. Putin tests how far he is willing to go before resorting to the ultimate weapon to achieve his goals.
And his outburst brought the topic of the Russian leader’s state of mind to the forefront of the American intelligence community once again, a guy who had previously been regarded as pragmatic, calculating, and clever. James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence, reiterated in public today what some officials have been saying privately since Russian President Vladimir Putin started accusing Ukraine of genocide and claimed that the country was building nuclear weapons of its own.
“This episode adds to concerns that Putin’s hold on reality is becoming more tenuous,” said Professor Allison, who worked on the project to decommission hundreds of nuclear warheads that had belonged to the Soviet Union, which was focused in Ukraine.
There is now no clear answer as to how General Gerasimov would convert President Putin’s ambiguously phrased directive for “special battle readiness” into actual action. Hopefully, the solution will be evident within the next day or two.
There is a massive nuclear-detection system in place in the United States and its allies that keeps track of Russia’s nuclear forces at all times, and experts say it would not be surprising to see Russian bombers loaded with nuclear weapons taken out of their hangars and headed out to sea, or Russian submarines loaded with nuclear weapons leave port and heading out to sea.
The exercises that both Russia and the United States perform to simulate different degrees of nuclear alert status are well known by both countries, and the choreography of such actions is well understood by Russia as well. A departure from standard operating procedure would very probably be noticed.
In order to maintain a state of readiness, both countries’ ground-based nuclear forces — the intercontinental ballistic missiles stored in underground silos — must always be ready. This is a key component of the strategy of “mutually assured destruction,” which helped to avoid nuclear exchanges even during the most tense periods of the Cold War.
It makes no difference what one thinks of Mr. Putin’s judgement; his decision to put the military on notice in the midst of very high tensions over the invasion of Ukraine was quite uncommon. Only a few days before, Putin issued a warning to the United States and other NATO allies to stay out of the fight, warning that “the repercussions would be like you have never seen in your whole history.”
A number of nuclear specialists noticed that Mr. Putin’s outburst reminded them of one of President Trump’s tweets, in which he highlighted that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had recently said that the ‘Nuclear Button’ was always on his desk: Will someone from his depleted and food-starved dictatorship kindly notify him that I, too, own a Nuclear Button, but that mine is far larger and more powerful than his, and that my Button functions?”
He subsequently asserted that the threat was planned, and that it had succeeded in bringing Mr. Kim to the negotiation table, where the two leaders would meet for a series of three high-profile sessions in the coming weeks. However, the negotiations came to a halt, and Mr. Kim’s nuclear arsenal is now much greater, according to most declassified assessments, than it was before Mr. Trump made his ultimatum.
Despite the fact that nuclear-armed governments are unable to wage nuclear wars since doing so would put them at danger of extinction, they may and do threaten extinction, Dr. Kroenig said on Sunday. When one side raises the possibility of conflict, it is hoped that another would back down and say, ‘Geez, this really isn’t worth waging a nuclear war over,'” says a spokesman.
Mr. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists said that unless the warnings are accompanied by proof that nuclear weapons are being withdrawn from storage and prepped for use, the threats might be meaningless.