Russia’s nuclear threats, false claims about Ukrainian bombs hang over the ongoing war

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed he had no plans to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, despite previous threats to do so. His comments came as the U.S. Department of Defense released a set of major strategy documents. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl joined Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, Russia's President Vladimir Putin claimed that he had no plans to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, despite previous threats to do so and warnings about the possible detonation of a radiological device in Ukraine.

    His comments came as the U.S. Department of Defense released a set of major strategy documents that describe China as the United States' most comprehensive challenger, but Russia as an acute threat.

    Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Moscow today, the leader with the world's largest nuclear arsenal warned of a turning point:

  • Vladimir Putin, Russian President (through translator):

    We stand at a historical frontier. Ahead is probably the most dangerous, unpredictable, and, at the same time, most important decade since the end of World War II.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Vladimir Putin spoke as Russia launched its annual nuclear exercises. He once again accused Ukraine of planning a dirty bomb attack on its own territory, but insisted Russia posed no nuclear threat.

  • Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    We don't need a nuclear strike on Ukraine. There is no point, either military or political.

    Lloyd Austin, U.S. Secretary of Defense: We are certainly concerned about escalation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Washington today, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned Russia, any nuclear attack on Ukraine would trigger consequences.

  • Lloyd Austin:

    If this happened, we have been very clear from the very beginning that you would see a very significant response from the international community.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Austin unveiled what he called the department's North Star, the National Defense Strategy, as well as the Nuclear Posture Review and the Missile Defense Review.

    The National Defense Strategy calls Russia an acute threat, but China the most comprehensive and serious challenge to U.S. national security. The Nuclear Posture Review reiterates support for the multitrillion-dollar modernization of the U.S. nuclear triad, the ability to strike from the air, from land with intercontinental ballistic missiles, and from sea.

    But it canceled a nuclear-armed sea launch cruise missile reinstituted by the Trump administration. It also rejects a promise made by candidate Biden.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: And there is no first use doctrine that we should be pushing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For years, Biden has believed the U.S. should abandon historic ambiguity and pledge not to use nuclear weapons first.

    But the Nuclear Posture Review says that would have created an unacceptable level of risk, in light of the range of non-nuclear capabilities being developed and fielded by competitors. The review acknowledges Russia's battlefield nuclear weapons and warns that Russia could use these forces to try to win a war on its periphery or avoid defeat if it was in danger of losing a conventional war.

    And joining me now is the Department of Defense's top policy official, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl.

    Colin, thank you very much. Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Do these Russian nuclear threats that we just went through change how the U.S. thinks of its nuclear policy and its defense of not only the U.S., but partners and allies?

    Colin Kahl, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy: Well, I think actually that a lot of the veiled and not-so-veiled threats that Vladimir Putin has made is a reminder that, for many of our adversaries, the salience of nuclear weapons is going up, not going down.

    And so the Nuclear Posture Review, which we released today as part of a series of nested reviews under the National Defense Strategy, makes clear that nuclear weapons remain an essential aspect of U.S. national security. And they play a unique role in deterring the types of threats that we're hearing about.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The review says that the U.S. would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the U.S., allies and partners.

    Does that mean the U.S. would consider nuclear weapons if deterrence fails and Putin does launch a nuclear device of some sort in and around Ukraine?

  • Colin Kahl:

    Well, I'm not going to go into hypotheticals about, if he does this, we will do that.

    I will just say, as a practical matter, we have stood by Ukraine. We provided the more than $18 billion in security assistance to defend their territory, their sovereignty, their independence. We will continue to do that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As we noted before he became president, Mr. Biden said he believed in no first use.

    Today's Nuclear Posture Review said that policy or the declaration that nuclear weapons' sole purpose is to deter would have produced an unacceptable risk.

    Why do you think that you are unable to convince allies to change U.S. nuclear policy?

  • Colin Kahl:

    The president still aspires for us to move to a place where the conditions are set where the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is solely to deter nuclear attack, as opposed to nuclear attacks and a narrow range of other strategic attacks. We just aren't in that world yet.

    And so the Nuclear Posture Review recognizes that. The president agrees with that assessment. But I think you also have to keep in mind that our allies and partners around the world that kind of nests — that kind of fall under the U.S. nuclear umbrella worry about a whole host of strategic threats.

    And they see the U.S. nuclear commitment as fundamental to the extended deterrence commitment we have made to them. So, they were also nervous about a move at this juncture at a time when the salience of nuclear weapons for our competitors and rivals appears to be going up. They were particularly concerned about a move towards sole purpose.

    So we consulted our allies during the process of writing the Nuclear Posture Review, and we landed where we landed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You are ending the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile program that was restarted by the Trump administration. Secretary Austin said today there was already enough capability in the U.S. nuclear inventory.

    But wouldn't that have been another weapon that U.S. allies wanted for reassurance and also provided the U.S. another capacity to deter?

  • Colin Kahl:

    The folks who emphasize the so-called SLCM-N, the Sea-Launched Cruise Missile, really emphasize the need for kind of a low-yield nuclear weapon, so that you can have various response options up the escalatory ladder.

    It was the judgment of the Nuclear Posture Review study that we already have sufficient low-yield capabilities. And, keep in mind, the SLCM-N, this the Sea-Launch Cruise Missile, would not deliver a capability until 2035. And it would cost tens of billions of dollars. And we just believe that the bang isn't worth the buck.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Russia is in the middle of its annual nuclear military exercises.

    The large — the last time that Russia had large-scale exercises, they were cover for the invasion of Ukraine. Secretary Austin said today there was no sign that these exercises were a cover, but do you have the confidence that you would actually know?

  • Colin Kahl:

    Well, look, there's nothing that our intelligence community spends more time looking at than the prospect that an adversary might use nuclear weapons against the United States or our allies and partners.

    So we watch this like a hawk every single day, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We believe that any effort to kind of mask nuclear use inside a nuclear exercise is something that we would pick up. We don't have any indications that the Russians are planning that. We do not expect them to do that. It would be a grave mistake.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Despite the threat of escalation, Ukraine continues.

    I got back a few weeks ago. President Zelenskyy is clear he's not in the mood for any kind of talks with Vladimir Putin. The foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told me that the best discussion table is the battlefield. Some 90 percent of Ukrainians now are calling for the re-seizure of Crimea, as well as the re-seizure of all the territory lost this year.

    Is the U.S. preparing for this war to extend past the one-year mark? And what are the implications of that?

  • Colin Kahl:

    Look, I think there's all — in all likelihood, this conflict will go on in one form or another.

    And I think part of Vladimir Putin's theory of victory, frankly, is that he can wait us all out. And one of the things that we have made clear consistently is, he's not going to be able to wait us out, that we are resolved to continue supporting Ukraine for the long haul.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And do you believe the U.S. can maintain the political support you have had in the past and also have enough military materiel on the shelf or for the long term to support Ukraine in a war, again, that seems like it's going to go on for a long time?

  • Colin Kahl:

    You know, I think there's considerable bipartisan support for Ukraine.

    I mean, periodically, you hear comments in one direction or the other. But, frankly, I think there's considerable support. I think the American people support the effort. I think that, despite high energy costs and a cold winter approaching in Europe, that we're going to keep the alliance unified.

    So, I think we can and that we will continue to support Ukraine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, thank you very much.

  • Colin Kahl:

    Thanks, Nick.

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