House Armed Services Chair: Don’t ‘Fuel’ Putin’s Narrative About Existential Threat to Russia

( – Talk of regime change in Moscow just plays into President Vladimir Putin’s narrative that Russia is facing an existential threat and “adds fuel to that,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said on Monday.

“We need to stop talking about wishing for a world where Putin isn’t in charge of Russia,” he said during a panel discussion at the Milken Institute think tank, held at a time when Russian rhetoric around its invasion of Ukraine has raised concerns about the risk of nuclear war.

“If you want to keep that to yourself, that’s fine,” Smith said. “If we say it publicly, that only further contributes to his really false claim … that this is an existential threat to Russia.”

Smith said the United States should be focused on protecting Ukraine and ensuring that Putin does not succeed there.

“Make him lose, but don’t make it an existential threat, is the very fine line that we have to walk.”


Smith that that if Putin did resort to using nuclear weapon in the conflict, “there are no good options. We could see that escalating to a very dangerous place very quickly.”

Michele Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration, raised the prospect that Putin could discharge a nuclear weapon – although she also said she did not think that would be the most likely outcome.

However, “if he really feels that he’s going to suffer a catastrophic loss,” she said during the Milken event, he may take the step of detonating a nuclear weapon elsewhere in a show of strength – “a demonstration shot, so not actually using it on the battlefield in Ukraine.”

Doing so would “shock everybody, surprise everybody and create fear,” Flournoy said. It would amount to Putin saying, “I’m serious here. I’m not afraid to use these things. I’ve just crossed, you know, a 70-year taboo – broken a 70-year taboo – and I’m serious, and we have to negotiate on my terms.”

‘Not a proxy war’

An ABC News/Washington Post poll on issues around the Ukraine conflict found that 80 percent of respondents expressed concern about the possible use by Russia of nuclear weapons.

Asked about that finding, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a press briefing Monday that a nuclear war cannot be won and it is important for leaders around the world and elected officials in the U.S. to make that clear.

Psaki also said that it was vital not to repeat the Kremlin’s talking point about the conflict in Ukraine being a “proxy” war between Russia and NATO, or Russia and the United States.

That’s a line being pushed by senior officials including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, citing the provision of weapons to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian invasion. Lavrov has also warned of growing risks of nuclear war.

“It is not a proxy war,” Psaki told the briefing. “This is a war between Russia and Ukraine. NATO is not involved. The United States is not fighting this war. So, I think it’s important and vital for all of us to not repeat the Kremlin talking points on this front.”

“So I would note the president’s view, and his position continues to be that we are not putting U.S. troops on the ground to fight this war,” she said. “And that’s something we will continue to reiterate for Americans.”

Psaki recalled that Russia “as recently as last year made clear that no nuclear war – a nuclear war could not be won.”

“We agree with that. And that is important for every country to restate and every elected official to restate around the country here as well.”

At their summit in Geneva last June, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Biden reaffirmed a formula first declared by President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev when they met in the same city 36 years earlier, that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Even more recently, in early January the U.S. and Russia joined the three other declared nuclear powers, China, Britain, and France, in a statement reiterating that stance.

Russia claimed credit for that initiative, but months later it is Russian actions and rhetoric that have set off alarm bells about the possibility that, for the first time in 70 years, a nuclear weapon could be used in combat.

Putin has given several veiled warnings of a nuclear response should outside players intervene in the Ukraine war pose a strategic threat to Russia, most recently last Wednesday.

Also last week, Lavrov said that the danger of nuclear war was “serious, real” and “cannot be underestimated,” although he also stressed that Russia takes as its starting point the principle of the “inadmissibility” of nuclear war.

Defense Secretary Gen. Lloyd Austin in response cautioned against “dangerous” and “unhelpful” rhetoric about the Ukraine war escalating into a nuclear conflict, and said the U.S. would not engage in such talk.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday that “loose talk” about the use of nuclear weapons was dangerous, not just in the context of Ukraine, “but it is also dangerous for the diluting effect that such talk could have on the global nonproliferation norm.”

“It is our goal, along with other responsible nuclear powers and a broader set of stakeholders, to see to it that the nonproliferation norm, — including those norms that are enshrined in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, are instead protected, that they are fortified. And that’s why we’re speaking out very clearly in response to these reckless comments from the Russians.”


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