Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III spoke Sunday for the second time in three days with his Russian counterpart, U.S. officials said, in a conversation intended to outline red lines that could potentially provoke Russia into committing to a nuclear attack on Ukraine start.
The 7:30 a.m. Eastern call with Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu should help the Biden administration understand why President Vladimir V. Putin is increasingly raising the specter of a nuclear strike in Ukraine, two officials said. With his forces there, Mr Putin has attempted to portray the territory he illegally annexed in Ukraine as part of “Mother Russia” and said any American-backed attack in those areas would be seen as an attack on the Russian homeland.
The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed that the two men spoke, saying only that they discussed the situation in Ukraine.
Mr. Austin and Mr. Shoigu spoke at the dedication of the Pentagon on Friday. Before that, the two last spoke in May.
A US official said Sunday that Moscow’s turn to Iranian drones, coupled with Putin’s increasingly escalating references to nuclear weapons, means a desperate Russia is looking for other tools in its arsenal to deploy. Mr Putin’s forces are grappling with fighting on the battlefield in Ukraine, and at home there are growing concerns about his military’s warfare.
The conversation with Mr Austin was among a series of calls Mr Shoigu had with other senior defense officials on Sunday. Speaking to his British, French and Turkish counterparts, Mr Shoigu raised concerns about the possibility that Ukraine would use a “dirty bomb”, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. Russia has not publicly offered any evidence to support its claims, and the allegations prompted a swift and fierce response from Ukrainian and Western officials.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called them “lies” that are “as absurd as they are dangerous.”
“We don’t have ‘dirty bombs’, nor do we plan to get any,” he says wrote on Twitter.
A so-called dirty bomb would use conventional explosives to spray radioactive material, and Russia has previously warned of the possibility one could be used in the Ukraine war.
The White House called Mr Shoigu’s claims “manifestly false”, while the Pentagon said Mr Austin “rejects any pretext for Russian escalation”.
The British Ministry of Defense also rejected the claims.
President Biden has so far struggled to avoid escalating nuclear brinkmanship and has indicated he still has no plans to directly involve American troops – or the US nuclear arsenal – in a war with Russia. At the same time, American officials say the United States would have a hard time not responding in some way if Mr Putin uses a nuclear weapon in the Ukraine war.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for more support from the West in the face of Mr Putin’s nuclear threats.
“When a terrorist state ups the ante, they have to feel like it’s not going to work,” he said in his nightly address.