Defense & National Security — US mum on options over Russia’s nuclear threats

U.S. officials are walking a careful line in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest suggestion that he may be willing to resort to nuclear weapons. 

We’ll detail the latest comments on this from both U.S. and Russian officials, plus the latest on Ukraine’s renewed pleas to the West for more weapons, a new message that U.S. defense officials hope can dissuade China from attacking Taiwan and the divide among Democrats over sending Ukraine more advanced weapons systems. 

This is Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Ellen MitchellSubscribe here.

Bleak options for US as Putin turns bellicose on nukes

Following Putin’s thinly-veiled reference to the nuclear option in remarks last week, Biden administration officials have said they are taking the comments seriously, while trying to avoid escalating the situation with more bellicose rhetoric. 

The Kremlin’s announcement, which also detailed aggressive new steps to try to turn the tide of the war in Ukraine back in Moscow’s favor, has U.S. officials caught between a bleak set of options with Putin’s nuclear saber rattling. 

The U.S. message: “We have communicated to the Russians what the consequences would be, but we’ve been careful in how we talk about this publicly because, from our perspective, we want to lay down the principle that there would be catastrophic consequences, but not engage in a game of rhetorical tit for tat,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday on ABC. 

The earlier threat: Putin last week said Moscow was prepared to use nuclear weapons to defend any of its territory, accusing the U.S. and its allies of “nuclear blackmail” and moving to “destroy” his country. 

“I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction, and some components are more modern than those of the NATO countries,” Putin claimed in a nationally televised address. 

A careful balance: The White House has said it has not seen a reason to adjust its nuclear posture in response to Putin’s comments. U.S. officials have instead tried to balance forceful calls for Russia not to escalate the conflict with a desire to keep conversations with Moscow private. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told “60 Minutes” in an interview broadcast Sunday that Putin was using “irresponsible rhetoric.” He also reiterated that the White House has publicly and privately cautioned Moscow against resorting to nuclear weapons. 

Nothing specific: Blinken would not get into the specifics of the U.S. message or strategy, but he said the administration does have a plan should Russia deploy nuclear armaments. 

“President Biden has been determined that as we’re doing everything we can to help the Ukrainians defend themselves, as we’re doing everything we can to rally other countries to put pressure on Russia, we’re also determined that this war not expand, not get broader,” Blinken said when asked if it was a plan to “prevent World War III.” 

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Monday refused to get into what the potential response would be if Russia used nuclear weapons, following the lead of President Biden and the secretary of State in recent weeks when asked about the consequences. 

The lines are open: Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday confirmed that Moscow was in contact with Washington on nuclear issues, but said it was “very sporadic” dialogue.  

Read the full story here

Zelensky thanks US for air systems, urges more help

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is thanking the United States for the advanced air defense systems it has sent to his country to aid in its war with Russia, but he also is pressing for more, according to an interview aired Sunday. 

Zelensky on CBS’s “Face the Nation” thanked Washington for the shipments of High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and other multiple launch rocket systems “that give us an ability to conduct our offensive.”  

More please: He added that his troops “absolutely need the United States to show leadership and give Ukraine the air defense systems” it continues to ask for. 

“Believe me, it’s not even nearly enough to cover the civilian infrastructure, schools, hospitals, universities, homes of Ukrainians,” Zelensky said, according to a full transcript of the interview.   

Still waiting: Kyiv is still waiting on National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS), a weapon Kyiv has long requested and was recently promised by Washington.

The Biden administration approved the shipment of six NASAMSs late last month as part of a nearly $3 billion lethal aid package to bolster Kyiv as it battles the Kremlin invasion.     

How it would help: The NASAMS delivery — which the Pentagon has said is still about two months away — is expected to help Ukraine maintain major gains in a counteroffensive begun earlier this month. Kyiv has managed to take back huge swaths of territory in the northeastern Kharkiv region and in the south. 

But Zelensky called for even more weapons, including tanks, artillery and more air defense systems, as well as financial assistance to keep the pace of his military going with winter fast approaching.

Read that story here 

US military points to Ukraine in warning China

U.S. defense officials are looking to leverage Ukraine’s unexpected success in resisting Russia to dissuade China from a potential invasion of Taiwan

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters last week that Chinese leaders “would be making an enormous mistake to invade Taiwan,” pointing to the economic consequences Russia has incurred and warning the tab for such aggression “can be very significant.” 

Warnings: As tension with Beijing remains high following Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) visit to Taiwan last month, U.S. officials have offered various public warnings to deter Chinese aggression, promising to arm and even send troops to defend Taiwan against an invasion.   

President Biden last week told “60 Minutes” that U.S. troops would help defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, the fourth times he’s made the declaration since becoming president.  

Ukraine’s stunning gains this month, forcing a Russian retreat from occupied areas, has given the Biden administration a chance to tout the power of a U.S.-backed military against an occupying army. 

Read the rest of the story here 


Democrats on Capitol Hill are divided on whether it’s time to start providing Ukraine with more advanced weapons systems as Kyiv proves itself capable with its recent counteroffensive. 

Kyiv has reclaimed thousands of square miles of land in recent weeks that had been under Russian control since it launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. The Ukrainian effort has been buttressed by more than $15 billion in security assistance from Washington. 

But the Ukrainians have been asking the U.S. to provide longer-range systems for months — a call that hasn’t been answered because the Biden administration has been cautious about providing weapons that would make longer range attacks on Russia possible. 

In a Sept. 15 briefing, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, warned that the U.S. would “cross the red line and become a party to the conflict” if it sent longer-range missiles to Ukraine. 

Read that story here 


  • Numerous defense officials will speak at IDEEA Inc.’s 2022 Common Defense Summit on “Integrated Deterrence,” beginning at 8:30 a.m.
  • Pakistan’s foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, will give his perspective on Pakistan’s foreign policy priorities at The Wilson Center at 9:30 a.m.
  • The Hudson Institute will host a discussion on “Gaining Decision Advantage: Modernizing Air Force Command and Control for Deterrence and Combat,” at 10 a.m.
  • The Government Executive Media Group will hold a series of discussions on the Air Force at 11 a.m.
  • Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will speak about Iran at The Hudson Institute, at 12 p.m.
  • The East-West Center in Washington will hold a talk on “Japan as a Global Military Power: New Capabilities, Alliance Integration, Bilateralism-Plus,” at 1 p.m.
  • The Atlantic Council will host a discussion on “A Surge in Crackdowns Across Iran,” at 1:30 p.m.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies will discuss “Poland and the War in Ukraine,” with Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Zbigniew Rau, at 4 p.m.
  • The Center for a New American Security will hold a talk on “One Year After Withdrawal: Update on Afghanistan,” with retired Gen. David Petraeus, former commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, at 4 p.m. 



That’s it for today! Check out The Hill’s Defense and National Security pages for the latest coverage. See you tomorrow!