Clip: Why Biden believes global nuclear risk at highest level since Cuban Missile Crisis

Oct. 07, 2022 AT 5:38 p.m. EDT

President Biden says because of Russia’s recent military setbacks in Ukraine and threats by Vladimir Putin, the global nuclear risk is at a level not seen in decades.

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Yamiche Alcindor : This was a busy, busy week, and we have a lot to get you, and here is where we start. Last night, President Biden issued a stark warning. He said, because of Russia's recent military setbacks in Ukraine and threats by President Putin, global nuclear risk is higher at this point than in decades. The president reportedly told a small group of donors, "We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis."

Joining me tonight to discuss this and more, Jonathan Lemire, White House Bureau Chief for Politico, and host of MSNBC's "Way Too Early", and joining me here in studio, Claudia Grisales, Congressional Correspondent for NPR; Seung Min Kim, White House Reporter for the Associated Press, and Ariana De Vogue, Supreme Court Reporter for CNN. Thank you all for being here.

Jonathan, I'm going to go to you. Take us inside President Biden's thinking here. What he is saying privately about the nuclear threats coming out of Russia?

Jonathan Lemire, White House Bureau Chief, POLITICO : Well, certainly, he surprised a lot of people last night with those very stark comments delivered at a fundraiser in New York City. And, he is not wrong, I suppose. This is the closest we've been to such an unthinkable outcome. But, U.S. officials were quick today to perhaps clarify what the president said. He was trying to suggest this was the arc of the conflict here.

Yes, at this moment, Vladimir Putin is cornered, the war effort by the Russians not going well. U.S. officials are concerned how he may lash out if the defeats continue to mount. But, there has been no sign, U.S. intelligence officials stressed this, no sign of any change to Moscow's nuclear posture, no sign that their Putin is more likely to launch a weapon like that, even a smaller tactical version now than he was at the beginning of the conflict. And, NATO intelligence tends to agree.

So, this is a moment, though, where the president is trying to continue to keep the allies rallied behind Ukraine, and underscore the threat that Russia continues to pose, as Europe is about to head into what is likely a long, dark, cold winter, deprived of a lot of Russian energy sources. It could -- puts a strain on the alliance.

Yamiche Alcindor : Yeah.

Jonathan Lemire : And, right now, the Ukrainians' counteroffensive going well. It's been a shocking success. And, the president is simply saying that this is something that the U.S. was worried about. But, there is no sign right now of Putin, at least not yet, willing to escalate things and take such a drastic step.

Yamiche Alcindor : And, you make the important point that U.S. officials say, Jonathan, that there is no fresh intelligence. How does that square with what President Biden is saying? Could his comments possibly be seen as making things even more tense with Russia or having any sort of negative impact?

Jonathan Lemire : Well, there have been a few times now where the president has said something and White House officials have had to quickly clarify it or sort of walk it back a little. But, I do think this one is one where the president is trying to suggest, trying to keep focus on just how important the stakes are here, that yes, that Ukraine is doing well, but the Americans and therefore our Western alliance allies shouldn't be complacent that this is still a threat, and that Biden was simply trying to just sort of trace the arc of this conflict and sort of put it in historical context. And, he is in a way right. Outside of the few maybe flashpoints in the 1980s, this probably is the closest the world has been to some sort of nuclear explosion.

But, U.S. officials have also made very clear to Putin directly, that if he were to do this, there will be catastrophic consequences for Moscow. It doesn't mean that the U.S. would unleash a nuke in return. But, there were ways to deliver, whether it's a cyberattack or more conventional warfare. We've seen the weakness of the Russian Military. The U.S. Military would probably roll through that. No one wants that, of course. But, I think there is a bit of a warning to what the president said as well.

Yamiche Alcindor : Certainly. And, Seung Min, the president -- President Biden told donors, "I'm trying to figure out what is Putin's off ramp? Where does he find a way out? What are you hearing about President Biden's thinking here and whether the U.S. thinks Russia does have an off ramp here?

Seung Min Kim, White House Reporter, The Associated Press : Well, the White House officials were actually asked about that today in her gaggle with reporters on the president's trip to Hagerstown, Maryland. What does he mean by an off ramp? Or, is the administration looking to do some sort of an agreement with Putin here? But, I think -- but, we didn't really get any clear answers on that. I do think it is just remarkable what he said because this is the starkest warning, sort of the most unvarnished warnings that we had gotten from some time from President Biden on this.

Yamiche Alcindor : It is a very, very stark warning, and really sort of unusual for him.

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