The risk of nuclear “Armageddon” is at its highest level since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, US president Joe Biden has said.
Speaking at a fundraising event in New York on Thursday night, he said Russian leader Vladimir Putin was “not joking when he talks about the use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons”.
“For the first time since the Cuban missile crisis, we have a direct threat of the use of a nuclear weapon if in fact things continue down the path they are going.”
Mr Putin has repeatedly alluded to using his country’s nuclear arsenal in the war in Ukraine.
Speaking last month the Russian president said: “I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction ... and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal.”
Mr Putin added that he was not bluffing.
Mr Biden said on Thursday night he was “trying to figure out what is Mr Putin’s off ramp”.
“Where does he find a way out. Where does he find himself in a position that he does not only not lose face but lose significant power within Russia.
“We’ve got a guy I know fairly well,” he said of Mr Putin. “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.”
Mr Biden said he did not think “there’s any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon”.
“We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis,” he said.
Mr Biden said he did not realise “how much serious damage the previous (Trump) administration did to our foreign policy”.
The US president made his comments on Thursday night at a fundraising event for Democratic senate candidates at the home of James Murdoch, son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and his wife Kathryn.
On Tuesday the White House said it had not seen any reason to adjust the US strategic nuclear posture nor had it any indication that Russia was preparing to use nuclear weapons.
Last week US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the White House had been “clear” to Russia about the consequences of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
Earlier on Thursday Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Mr Putin understood the world would “never forgive” a Russian nuclear strike.
“He understands that after the use of nuclear weapons he would be unable any more to preserve, so to speak, his life, and I’m confident of that.”