The U.S. has warned Russia of “catastrophic consequences” if it launches a nuclear attack on Ukraine, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Sunday.
Sullivan, speaking on ABC’s “This Week” show, said U.S. officials have told Russian officials privately that Biden “will respond decisively” if Russian President Vladimir Putin orders a nuclear strike but did not say how the U.S. would respond.
Sullivan said the U.S. would “not engage in a game of rhetorical tit-for-tat” with Russia.
The U.S. response came after Putin signaled the possibility of a nuclear attack last week as he called up 300,000 military reservists to help fight in its seven-month invasion of Ukraine. The troop augmentation came after Russian battlefield setbacks, with Kyiv’s forces recapturing large swaths of territory in northeast Ukraine that Russia had seized in the early weeks of the war.
Widespread protests against Putin’s troop call-up have erupted in Russia, with police arresting hundreds of demonstrators participating in street protests in Moscow and elsewhere.
Many men opposed to Putin’s war or fearful of being killed in the battlefront have abruptly fled Russia on flights to other countries, while others have joined long queues of cars on land routes headed to the Russian borders with Finland, Georgia and other countries.
Russia is in the midst of staging five days of disputed referenda in four regions of Ukraine it either fully or partially controls, votes where it assumes the local residents will support Russian annexation, which would give Moscow a pretext to defend the newly claimed territory. In some instances, Russian soldiers have been going door to door at gunpoint to order Ukrainians to vote.
But Ukraine, the U.S. and their Western allies are calling the referenda sham votes and of no legal consequence. Any Russian annexation of Ukrainian land would not be globally recognized.
Sullivan said the votes were “definitely not signs of strength or competence” on Russia’s part.
In an interview aired Sunday on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” show, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Ukrainians who refuse to vote in the referenda face significant retribution from Russian forces.
“Russians can turn off their electricity and won’t give them an opportunity to live a normal human life,” Zelenskyy said. “They force people, they throw them in prisons. They force them to come to these pseudo-referenda. And also, they also announced mobilization [of 300,000 reservists.] They’re forcing people to fight, people from the temporarily occupied territories.”
But Zelenskyy said, “there is no support in the society for this referendum.”
The Ukrainian leader said the referenda are “a very dangerous signal” from Putin that he does not intend to end the war.
“He knows that he’s losing the war,” Zelenskyy said. “In the battlefield, Ukraine has seized the initiative. He cannot explain to his society why, and he is looking for answers to these questions.”
With the West and Ukraine saying the voting is almost assuredly preordained to favor Russia’s annexation, Zelenskyy said Moscow will then say, “Now, it’s the West who attacks Russia. Now, the West attacks our territories. We have to let the society join Russia, the society that wanted to be with Russia.”
Zelenskyy said a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine “could be a reality. He wants to scare the whole world. These are the first steps of his nuclear blackmail. I don’t think he’s bluffing.”
But Zelenskyy added, “I think the world is deterring it and containing this threat. We need to keep putting pressure on him and not allow him to continue.”
He concluded, “I think that the military strategy of military and political leadership of Russia has not changed: its occupation of our country. And of course, they want to destabilize our country from inside.”
But he said Ukrainians are united against Putin, “even more united now than ever, over the 31 years of our independence from the Soviet Union.”
“So, he does everything possible to destabilize our country to make sure we’re weaker. And for that he wants to divide us of course, I’m one of the targets, of course, it goes without saying,” Zelenskyy said. “It’s not because of my personality, just because… because the president is a leader of their country.”