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All Putin has left is to "rattle the nuclear saber," says former U.S. national security adviser

H.R. McMaster on Ukraine war escalation
Strategic importance of recent attacks in Ukraine 06:40

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ignited fears that he could use tactical nuclear weapons in his ongoing war in Ukraine. President Joe Biden said last week that the risk of "Armageddon" facing humanity was greater than it had been at any point since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  

Former U.S. national security adviser and retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster said Tuesday that Putin's objective is to incite fear, and all he has left is to "rattle the nuclear saber."

"[President Biden's] message was unfortunate there, because it does kind of play into Putin's hands," McMaster, a CBS News contributor, said about Mr. Biden's "Armageddon" remark.

McMaster said the Russian leader's goal was to spread enough fear within the countries supporting Kyiv as to "constrain our support for the Ukrainians, who are defending their children."  

Russia launches more attacks on Ukraine as Biden and G7 leaders meet 05:32

Putin signaled late last month that he could resort to a nuclear attack, vowing to "defend" all Russian territory, and making it clear that he counts occupied regions of Ukraine as Russian soil. 

He said Russia would "certainly use all the means at our disposal," and stressed: "It's not a bluff." 

Biden made it clear that he believes the Russian autocrat may not be bluffing, and nor does Ukraine's leader, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

"I don't think he's bluffing": Zelenskyy says Putin's nuclear threats "could be a reality" 12:19

While the Kremlin has continued to send nuanced signals, U.S. officials have said they've observed no change in the posture of Russia's nuclear forces that would require a change in the alert level of America's nuclear forces.

Putin is now escalating his war in response to a swift Ukrainian counteroffensive. Russia hammered Ukraine with missiles for a second day on Tuesday. The first barrage of missiles and drones on Monday was Russia's largest attack in months,  and it left at least 19 people dead and about 100 wounded. 

McMaster said it was the scale of the recent attacks — spanning across virtually all of Ukraine, an area roughly the size of Texas — that stood out to him.

"Eighty-four cruise missiles launched from various locations, about 24 drones, some of these suicide drones provided to the Russians by the Iranians," McMaster said, "and the targets were to terrorize the Ukrainian people." 

Russia launches biggest attack on Ukraine in months 07:43

Russia said the strikes targeted Ukraine's infrastructure, and they did knock out power in many cities, but the missiles also slammed into apartment buildings, schools and busy intersections at rush hour.

"All of this was meant to affect Ukraine's will in a negative way," McMaster said. "Of course, I think it has had the opposite effect... I think it's bolstered the will of the Ukrainians to fight for their sovereignty and their freedom."

As the fighting rages, McMaster said the Russian people aren't getting the truth about the war.

"They never get the truth, right? I mean, whatever Putin says, the opposite is reality," he said. "And I think what you are seeing now are some real cracks within the Russian regime, and I think in Russian popular opinion, it's hard to believe any polls that come out of Russia. If they say, 'Hey, what do you think of Vladimir Putin?' What are you gonna say? You disappear if you give the wrong answer. And of course It's important to note that inside of Russia now, there are more political prisoners than there were during the height of the Cold War." 

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