Biden and Putin meet for the US-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva on June 16, 2021. Image Credit: REUTERS file

NEW YORK/KYIV: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine has brought the world closer to “Armageddon” than at any time since the Cold-War Cuban Missile Crisis, US President Joe Biden said.

As Putin’s seven-month war unravels, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Kyiv’s forces were swiftly recapturing more territory, including more than 500 sq km in the south where they burst through a second major front this week.

Biden said the prospect of defeat could make Putin, who was 70 on Friday, desperate enough to use nuclear weapons, the biggest risk since US President John Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev faced off over missiles in Cuba in 1962.

“We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis,” Biden said in New York. “For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat to the use of nuclear weapons, if in fact things continue down the path they’d been going.”

Putin was “not joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons, because his military is, you might say, is significantly underperforming,” Biden said.

Concern so far has been over the prospect of Russia deploying a so-called “tactical” nuclear weapon - a short-range device for use on the battlefield - rather than the “strategic” weapons on long-range missiles that Washington and Moscow have stockpiled since the Cold War.

But Biden suggested it made little difference: “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily (use) a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”

Putin has warned he would use all means necessary, including Russia’s nuclear arsenal, to protect Russian soil, which he now says includes four Ukrainian regions he declared annexed last week.

In remarks to Australia’s Lowy Institute, Zelensky said Nato should launch preventive strikes on Russia to preclude its use of nuclear weapons.

Kremlin denounces comments

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denounced those comments as “an appeal to start yet another world war with unpredictable, monstrous consequences”.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Zelensky’s remarks demonstrated why Russia was right to launch its operation.

Putin signed a bill this week annexing Ukraine’s Donestk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, representing about 15% of the country, although none is fully under Russian control.

Ukrainian forces have advanced swiftly since bursting through the Russian front in the northeast at the start of September, and in the south this week.

Since Putin proclaimed the annexation a week ago, Ukraine has recaptured the main Russian bastion in northern Donetsk, and a swath of territory on the west bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said last week that the US has been “clear’’ to Russia about what the “consequences’’ of using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine would be.

“This is something that we are attuned to, taking very seriously, and communicating directly with Russia about, including the kind of decisive responses the United States would have if they went down that dark road,’’ Sullivan said.

Zelensky said earlier on Thursday that Putin understood that the “world will never forgive’’ a Russian nuclear strike.

“He understands that after the use of nuclear weapons he would be unable any more to preserve, so to speak, his life, and I’m confident of that,’’ Zelensky added.