Former Defense Official Concerned U.S. Is Underestimating Putin

As top intelligence officials calm fears of a looming nuclear strike ordered by Vladimir Putin, one former defense official said he's worried that the U.S. may be underestimating the Russian president's willingness to launch an attack on Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Putin announced that Russia would expand its war efforts in response to a successful counteroffensive mission from Ukraine. He warned that he'd be willing to turn to "various weapons of destruction" to "protect Russia and our people."

The thinly-veiled threat prompted both U.S. President Joe Biden and the National Security Council to respond, cautioning that there would be "severe responses" if Russia were to use nuclear weapons. However, officials also reassured that there's been "no indication" that events would escalate to that level anytime soon.

But one former U.S. official thinks those statements may be a bit too naive when it comes to Putin. Retired Lieutenant General Robert Ashley told Newsweek that while he didn't want to speculate on the possibility of a nuclear attack, "my concern is we may be underestimating how far Putin may go in escalating the conflict."

"While I still assess the use of nuclear weapons remains very low, it's not zero as many have written," Ashley wrote in an email.

Putin Nuclear U.S. Underestimate
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during an event to mark the 1160th anniversary of Russia's statehood in Veliky Novgorod on September 21, 2022. "My concern is we may be underestimating how far Putin may go in escalating the conflict," Ashley said. Ilya Pitalev/Sputnik

Other experts have previously told Newsweek that because monitoring nuclear activity has become the norm since the Cold War, the U.S. should be well positioned to know when Putin could strike.

John Erath, the senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said that although the Russian president is likely trying to utilize the threat to persuade other countries to reconsider their support of Ukraine, "[Putin] isn't bluffing, which is part of the danger."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has vowed that Ukraine's allies would not engage in the "same kind of reckless and dangerous nuclear rhetoric" as Putin. But in his Wednesday address to the United Nations General Assembly, Biden warned that "the United States is ready to pursue critical arms control measures."

"A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought," he said.

At the same time that the U.S. may be underestimating Putin, the Russian leader may also be miscalculating the NATO response should he turn to the possible use of nuclear weapons.

"I cannot imagine Putin wanting to bring the U.S./NATO directly into the conflict and the use of a nuclear weapon would likely make that a distinct possibility," Ashley said. "However, he may continue to be misreading how far NATO/U.S. will go."