Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Friday comments weighed in on the state of Russia's vast nuclear arsenal, saying that President Vladimir Putin is in the midst of undertaking the modernization and expansion of his nuclear capabilities.
He further repeated the charge which has been coming from Western officials of late that Putin is making nuclear threats, despite the Kremlin's insistence that critics are misinterpreting the Russian leader's remarks, including the latest which came days ago.
Austin said at an event inaugurating the new head of US Strategic Command (STRATCOM), Anthony Cotton, that even as it struggles in enact its military objectives in Ukraine, Russia is "modernizing and expanding its nuclear arsenal."
"And as the Kremlin continues its cruel and unprovoked war of choice against Ukraine, the whole world has seen Putin engage in deeply irresponsible nuclear saber-rattling," he said.
"So make no mistake. Nuclear powers have a profound responsibility to avoid provocative behavior, and to lower the risk of proliferation, and to prevent escalation and nuclear war," he stressed.
The Pentagon chief hailed STRATCOM (US Strategic Command) as providing the "ultimate backstop" against attacks against the US and its allies, given its chief mission is strategic nuclear deterrence and overseeing global strikes.
Below: Number of nuclear warheads stockpiled by NATO and Russia as of 2022, by type
You will find more infographics at Statista
Austin appeared to be responding to the latest remarks by Putin to the press days ago, wherein he once again addressed the threat of nuclear war, a risk which he said is "rising" in relation to the Ukraine situation.
Putin further took the opportunity to restate Russia's 'defensive' nuclear doctrine, stressing that nuclear weapons would be considered as a response to an attack on Russian territory, while also stating that he stands ready to defend Russian territory "using all available means".
According to a translation of Putin's remarks in Sky News:
"We didn't speak about usage of nuclear weapons." Then, he said: "Russia has not gone mad."
"We have the most advanced weapons, but we do not want to wave it around."
"'We have not gone mad,' [Putin] said, adding that Moscow would only deploy its nuclear arsenal, the largest in the world, in the event of a nuclear attack on Russia."https://t.co/Lz7jiNKdDr— Michael Weiss 🌻🇺🇸🇮🇪 (@michaeldweiss) December 7, 2022
Despite the thrust of Putin's comments actually going in the direction of firmly asserting that Russia does not want to use nuclear weapons, he was widely accused in Western press and among officials of making nuclear "threats" - and it wasn't the first time his words were misconstrued, and likely won't be the last.