Russia Refuses to Answer if Nuclear War Could Start Over Ukraine

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov batted away a question on whether nuclear war is possible, despite saying that Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine should not get in the way of any deal between Russia and the U.S. to curb an arms race.

Peskov, as well as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have previously said only conventional weapons would be used in Ukraine, although Russian state television, which reflects Kremlin thinking, has repeatedly talked up the prospect of a nuclear war.

But on Thursday, Peskov evaded a question about the prospect of a nuclear war, telling RIA Novosti: "I believe that the media should be professional enough not to ask such questions, and those who are being interviewed should be wise enough not to answer such questions."

The specter of nuclear weapons has hung over the war in Ukraine ever since Putin ordered his nuclear forces to a higher state of alert on February 27, three days after the start of the invasion.

Russian nuclear missile
A Russian nuclear missile rolls along Red Square during the military parade marking the 75th anniversary of Nazi defeat, on June 24, 2020 in Moscow, Russia. The Kremlin has said that the U.S. needed to resume talks with Russia over nuclear non proliferation. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

In April, Russia carried out its first successful test of the Sarmat, a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Putin said would make adversaries "think twice."

Experts have cast doubt on whether Putin would use nuclear weapons if the war turned against him. However, the Arms Control Association executive director, Daryl Kimball, told Newsweek in April, that the Ukraine war meant the risk of nuclear weapons being used, even if it were unlikely, was still "higher than it has been since the end of the Cold War."

Peskov also said that it was urgent that Russia and the U.S. resume talks on the New START weapons treaty, which limits the strategic warheads and launchers in the world's two top nuclear powers and allows them to inspect one another's stockpiles.

"This is a topic that cannot be avoided. You can, of course, try to bury your head in the sand like an ostrich in referring to the special military operation" Peskov said using the Kremlin's term for the war, "but Russia and the United States must discuss this topic."

"This discussion is important not only for the peoples of our two countries, but also for the whole world, for global security," he told RIA Novosti on the one-year anniversary of a summit in Geneva between presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden. "Discussions should have started yesterday."

"Now we are in a very, very spot of confrontation," he added.

The New START treaty was initially struck in 2010 between Putin's predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, and former President Barack Obama. Just before it expired in February 2021, it was extended until 2026, soon after President Joe Biden took office.

The treaty caps strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed delivery vehicles and heavy bombers for both Russia and the U.S.

However, there is concern that the four years is a short period of time to negotiate and secure a new deal to replace the only remaining treaty that limits U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

The Arms Control Association said in February that the war in Ukraine had made any further progress on arms control and risk reduction "impossible, at least for the time being."

A U.S. State Department spokesperson told Newsweek that Washington had suspended a number of bilateral engagements, including the Strategic Stability Dialogue, comprised of meetings aimed at reducing the nuclear risk between the United States and Russia.

"Consultations between the United States and Russia will be necessary to enhance global stability," the statement said. "Now is not the time for those conversations."

However, the spokesperson said "despite their bellicose rhetoric, we have seen no indications that Russia has intent to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine and we have not seen any reason to raise our alert levels or adjust our nuclear posture."

Update 06/17/22, 3 a.m. ET: This article has been updated with a response to Newsweek by the U.S. State Department.