Russia’s envoy to the United States has told Newsweek that leaders of the U.S.-led NATO military alliance do not grasp the true gravity of a potential nuclear conflict erupting, as a tense war of words among powers looms over the ongoing fighting in Ukraine.
As officials and other influential figures of the U.S. and allied nations accuse the Kremlin of summoning the specter of nuclear war over NATO’s support for Ukraine against Russia’s devastating invasion, Moscow’s ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov, disparaged what he called “a flurry of blatant misrepresentation of Russian officials’ statements on our country’s nuclear policy.”
In fact, he said it was those in the Western bloc that have proven irresponsible in their handling of what has been described as one of the most dangerous moments since the Cuban Missile Crisis six decades ago.
“The current generation of NATO politicians clearly does not take the nuclear threat seriously,” Antonov told Newsweek.
Those who feel Russia was fueling the hysteria include top U.S. military leaders, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair General Mark A. Milley, who accused Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of “nuclear saber-rattling” after an interview last month in which Moscow’s top diplomat said that “the danger is serious, real, and we must not underestimate it.”
And while U.S. officials cast Russia as the aggressor in escalating nuclear tensions, Antonov called these accusations “baseless,” and “part of a propaganda campaign launched against Russia in response to the steps taken to neutralize threats to our national security emanating from the Ukrainian territory.”
He then outlined the “conditions under which the use of nuclear weapons is possible” as per Russia’s official doctrine, which he said states that such weapons of mass destruction “can be used in response to the use of WMD against Russia and its allies, or in the event of aggression against our country, when the very existence of the state is jeopardized.”
But Antonov believes his Western colleagues misread the weight of the nuclear risk, and that’s why Russian officials “have never stopped our efforts to reach agreements that will guarantee that a catastrophic confrontation will not be unleashed.”
“It is our country that in recent years has persistently proposed to American colleagues to affirm that there can be no winners in a nuclear war, thus it should never happen,” Antonov said.
He noted the inclusion of this “no winners” principle in the joint Russia-U.S. statement adopted after the June 2021 summit held between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and again among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council in January of this year.
Even before the outbreak of Russia’s war in Ukraine on February 24, however, strategic stability between the two nations that hold roughly 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenal had eroded. Now, the conflict leaves the future of one of the last bastions of diplomacy between Moscow and Washington even more uncertain.
Next month will mark two decades since the U.S. exit from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which for half a century marked a pioneering effort in reducing nuclear tensions in the heat of the Cold War. In August 2019, then-President Donald Trump abandoned the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, accusing Moscow of having first defied the agreement through the development of a new cruise missile in violation of the 310-3,420-mile range banned for land-launched weapons.
Since then, just one single yet significant treaty has bound the Russian and the U.S. nuclear arsenals, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). After disagreements between Moscow and Washington threatened to allow this accord to collapse as well, Biden heeded Putin’s offer to unconditionally extend it as one of the U.S. leader’s first foreign policy measures after taking office last year.
Antonov called New START “a universally recognized gold standard in the sphere of maintaining strategic stability and transparency between the major nuclear powers,” and said that “Russia has repeatedly drawn the attention of the United States that it is important to continue the joint work on an agreement that could replace New START and accommodate new realities of international security and development of military technologies.”
“Regrettably, Washington has unilaterally ‘frozen’ the bilateral strategic stability dialogue that was launched at the Geneva summit, thus jeopardizing the prospects of keeping the foundation of arms control in place,” he added. “Russia is ready to resume the consultations as soon as the United States is ready.”
The latest report submitted to Congress last month by the State Department assessed that both sides remained in compliance with New START.
The report also said that “the United States has made clear its concerns about Russia’s arsenal of theater-range nuclear weapons,” which commonly refers to weapons armed with low-yield, tactical warheads, of which the U.S. Intelligence Community assesses Russia possesses between 1,000-2,000, a figure that is “projected to grow.”
The U.S. has also developed low-yield warheads for use on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and Pentagon officials have called for even more applications. U.S. Strategic Command chief Admiral Charles A. Richard told lawmakers in a letter last month that “a non-ballistic, low-yield, non-treaty accountable system that is available without visible generation would be valuable.”
“The nation and our allies have not faced a crisis like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in over 30 years,” Richard said. “President Putin simultaneously invaded a sovereign nation while using thinly veiled nuclear threats to deter U.S. and NATO intervention.”
Neither Russia nor the U.S. has made any official changes to their respective nuclear policies since the war in Ukraine began more than two months ago. But rhetoric touched upon the potential for nuclear escalation in the opening days of the conflict, especially after Putin announced on February 27 that his nuclear forces were being placed “on a special mode of combat duty.”
Antonov said Western nations “misinterpreted the decision.” But Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu “publicly explained that it was only about the work shifts of strategic forces commands which began to perform combat duties with reinforced personnel.”
The Russian diplomat said it was about responding to NATO’s own nuclear moves on the continent.
“This means that Russia has increased its vigilance against the backdrop of extremely confrontational statements by Western countries,” Antonov said, “including NATO member states that possess nuclear weapons.”
Among the 30-state NATO alliance, three nations — France, the United Kingdom and the U.S. — possess nuclear weapons. The U.S. has also, however, deployed nuclear weapons to a number of other allied states including Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey.
This nuclear sharing policy, through which such weapons remain solely under U.S. control, has prompted concerns from Russia that Ukraine’s NATO aspirations could also bring nuclear weapons to the neighboring former Soviet republic seeking closer ties to the West.
As such, Antonov argued that “it is not us who are the source of unhealthy speculations about unleashing a nuclear war.”
“They were initiated by the Kiev regime, which made no secret of its intentions to acquire military nuclear capabilities,” Antonov said. “In the same vein — statements made by Polish leaders about their readiness to deploy American nuclear weapons on their territory. And some hotheads on Capitol Hill even allege to call to use nuclear weapons against Russia.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has denied that his statements disparaging the 1994 Budapest Memorandum constituted a call for developing nuclear weapons. The deal, reached three years after Ukraine declared its independence, launched a process through which Kyiv surrendered Soviet-era nuclear weapons stored in Ukraine to Moscow in exchange for security assurances.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine, which both U.S. and Ukrainian officials have argued amount to “war crimes” and even “genocide,” have nonetheless stirred a hawkishness in Washington and other allied capitals with calls for a greater NATO role in the conflict.
“Such rhetoric is accompanied by an unprecedented ‘pumping’ of Ukraine with modern NATO weapons,” Antonov said. “There are calls in the West to establish a no-fly zone, to bring alliance troops into Ukrainian territory under the disguise of peacekeepers.”
Antonov also reiterated Russian claims of “an undeclared military biological program implemented with the support of the Pentagon in close proximity to the Russian borders.” U.S. officials have roundly rejected these allegations. A State Department official told Newsweek in March that such sites were actually “Ukrainian diagnostic and biodefense laboratories,” which “are not biological weapons facilities.”
Competing narratives over the war in Ukraine continue to play out in the information space in both news outlets and social media, as both sides accuse one another of deliberately obscuring the truth to suit their respective interests.
Antonov says his concerns lie with the fact that, for all the World War II comparisons made, the current generation of leadership has not lived through the worst of humanity as did “the Soviet and American leaders who went through the Second World War and knew from personal experience what the blood and torment of millions of people are.”
He then quoted two leaders who carried the world through the tense moments of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“We are in a dire need of military intellectuals,” Soviet Defense Minister Marshal Rodion Malinovsky wrote in his notebook, as cited by Antonov. “Not just highly educated officers, but people who have mastered advanced culture of heart and spirit a humanistic outlook. Modern weapons of such destructive power cannot be entrusted to a skillful person who has only a firm grip. To wield it one needs a clear head capable of foreseeing consequences as well as a sensible heart. That is a mighty moral instinct.”
On the other side of the crisis was President John F. Kennedy, who in his famous 1963 address at American University offered a softer approach to relations with Moscow.
“If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity,” Kennedy said. “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
With the world’s top two nuclear powers again at the brink, Antonov said “our country does not threaten the United States and its European allies, but, on the contrary, is making every effort to prevent the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis.”
And he explained why the nuclear warnings from Moscow continue.
“We are compelled to warn of the emerging risks associated with the intervention of NATO states into the Russian special military operation,” Antonov said.