Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Sunday criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s vow to use “all available means” to defend Russia as “an irresponsible statement,” in the wake of Moscow annexing four provinces in Ukraine as Russian territory.
“This nuclear saber-rattling is not the kind of thing that we would expect to hear from leaders of large countries,” Mr. Austin said on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.”
The Kremlin’s decision to absorb Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region into the Russian Federation has prompted senior government officials in Moscow to make the kind of nuclear threats that haven’t been heard since the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.
Top Pentagon officials have reached out to their Russian counterparts to warn them against even considering threatening a nuclear attack in occupied Ukraine. Mr. Austin said he raised the issue with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
“I warned him not to go down this path and conduct this type of irresponsible behavior,” Mr. Austin said Sunday. “I do think he heard my message.”
Mr. Austin said Mr. Putin is the only man in Moscow with his finger on the nuclear button.
“There are no checks on Mr. Putin and just as he made the irresponsible decision to invade Ukraine, he could make another decision,” the Pentagon chief said. “I don’t see anything right now that would lead me to believe he has made such a decision.”
Regardless of what is said in Moscow, Ukraine will continue its fight to take back territory that Russia seized from them, Mr. Austin said.
“I don’t think that’s going to stop and we will continue to support them in their efforts,” he said.