Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin's annexation of four Ukrainian regions, warning that there is no one to deter him from his threats of using nuclear weapons.
Speaking with CNN's Fareed Zakaria on Sunday, Austin said, "To be clear, the guy who makes that decision — I mean it's one man, there are no checks on Mr. Putin. Just as he made the irresponsible decision to invade Ukraine, he could make another decision. But I don't see anything right now that would lead me to believe that he has made such a decision."
Indications of Russia annexing four eastern parts of Ukraine as their own came about, according to Reuters, after Russian-installed officials in eastern Ukrainian regions held a referendum to join Russia. The West has since called them "sham-referendums." The developments point toward indications that Russia may construe the newly annexed territories as part of Russia, and Russian officials may construe a push from Ukrainian forces on the newly annexed territories as an attack on Russia, which stands as a development apart from Ukraine taking back its own territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to The Hill, has since said that the use of nuclear weapons is "not a bluff."
"This nuclear saber-rattling," Austin continued, "is not the kind of thing that we would expect to hear from leaders of large countries with capability."
The United States has pledged that a response would be bold if Russia uses nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the Biden administration says it has privately laid out, in more detail, potential consequences for the Kremlin.
While Austin on Sunday said he did not personally deliver that message, he notes that the U.S. has relayed concerns through Russia's defense minister, Sergei Shoigu.
"Personally, I have not talked to Shoigu in recent days, but I have talked to him in the past," Austin added. "And I have addressed this very issue and warned to not go down this path and conduct this type of irresponsible behavior."
Following Putin's speech, where he called into conscription 300,000 Russian reservists, the country has annexed Ukraine's Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions.
Ukrainian forces over the weekend took control of the key transportation hub in Lyman, a city located in the newly annexed Donetsk region.
But Ukrainian forces, bolstered with Western funding, have continued to dig in. Recently, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy vowed his country would not cede any new territory.
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