The White House avoided a heated response to President Vladimir V. Putin’s announcement that he was putting Russia’s nuclear forces on alert, casting it as another example of Mr. Putin’s moves to imagine a threat and escalate the confrontation with the West.
Officials were still debating whether to alter the status of American nuclear forces. But for now, according to two government officials, they were trying to avoid being lured into a spiral of escalation, taking the position that American nuclear forces are on a constant low level of alert that is sufficient to deter Russian use of nuclear weapons.
“At no point has Russia been under threat from NATO,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Sunday after Mr. Putin ordered the alert. “We have the ability to defend ourselves.”
But the longer-term US response will almost certainly depend on what the Russian nuclear forces do in the next several days, as the commanders of the Russian strategic forces try to demonstrate that they are responding to Mr. Putin’s vaguely worded order, delivered for the cameras, to move “Russia’s deterrence forces” to a level of “special combat readiness.”
Both countries have various levels of alert, and it was unclear how Mr. Putin’s wording would be translated by the forces.
A vast nuclear-detection apparatus run by the United States and its allies monitors Russia’s nuclear forces at all times, and experts said they would not be surprised to see Russian bombers taken out of their hangars and loaded with nuclear weapons, or nuclear-equipped submarines leave port and head out to sea.
Both Russia and the US conduct drills that replicate various levels of nuclear alert status, so the choreography of such moves is well understood by both sides. A deviation from usual practice would almost certainly be noticeable.
The ground-based nuclear forces — the intercontinental ballistic missiles kept in silos by both nations — are always in a state of readiness, a keystone to the strategy of “mutually assured destruction” that helped avoid nuclear exchanges at even the most tense moments of the ColdWar.
Mr. Putin’s decision to put the forces on alert in the midst of the extraordinary tensions over the Ukraine invasion was highly unusual — and an escalation for the Russian leader, who several times in the past week has reminded the world of the size and reach of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Several days ago he warned the US and NATO powers to stay out of the conflict, adding “the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”
Russia and the United States are limited to 1,550 deployed strategic weapons by the one remaining major nuclear treaty, New START. Both sides have smaller, tactical weapons designed for battlefield use, though the Russians have a far larger stockpile of them.
Until last week, the two nations were meeting regularly to discuss new arms-control regimes, including a revival of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which President Trump abandoned in 2019. But the US said last week that it was suspending those talks, called the “Strategic Stability Dialogue.”