After humiliating defeats in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin told his people that the US is bent on destroying the Russian homeland. On Wednesday, he drafted 300,000 reservists and threatened nuclear war. “This is not a bluff,” he said. Ukraine dominated this past week’s annual gathering of the UN General Assembly in New York — attended by President Biden and more than 120 world leaders. Friday, we met the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, to talk about a world of challenges and Putin’s nuclear threat.
Scott Pelley: How concerned should Americans be about the prospect of nuclear war?
Antony Blinken: Scott we’ve heard a lot of irresponsible rhetoric coming out of Vladimir Putin, but we’re focused on making sure that we’re all acting responsibly, especially when it comes to this kind of loose rhetoric. We have– been very clear with– the Russians publicly and– as well as privately to stop the loose talk about nuclear weapons.
Scott Pelley: Privately, the United States has been in communication with the Kremlin about these threats of nuclear war?
Antony Blinken: Yes. It’s very important that Moscow hears from us and knows from us that the consequences would be horrific. And we’ve made that very clear.
Scott Pelley: You call the nuclear talk “loose talk.” But isn’t Vladimir Putin telling us what he’s going to do if he is backed any further into a corner?
Antony Blinken: Vladimir Putin has a clear way out of the war he started and that’s to end it. If Russia stops fighting, the war ends. If Ukraine stops fighting, Ukraine ends.
Scott Pelley: Is there anyone in the Kremlin who can tell Vladimir Putin “No” if he decides to launch a battlefield nuclear weapon?
Antony Blinken: They have a chain of command. Whether it works or not– to be seen. But I think what you’re pointing to is a bigger challenge. And that is the Achilles heel of autocracies anywhere, there is usually not anyone who has the capacity or the will to speak truth to power, And part of the reason I think– Russia has gotten itself into the mess that it’s in is because there is no one in the system to effectively tell Putin he’s doing the wrong thing.
Scott Pelley: In our interview last week, President Biden told us that he had a message for Vladimir Putin on the use of nuclear weapons.
President Joe Biden, last week: Don’t, Don’t, Don’t.
Scott Pelley: He went on to say, the US response would be consequential. What did he mean by that?
Antony Blinken: I’m not gonna get into what the consequences would be- any use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic effects for — of course the country using them– but for many others as well.
Scott Pelley: If you can’t give us specifics about a US response, can you tell us that the administration has a plan?
Antony Blinken: We do.
Scott Pelley: Is it a plan that would prevent World War III?
Antony Blinken: President Biden has been determined that as we’re doing everything we can to help the Ukrainians defend themselves, as we’re doing everything we can to rally other countries to put pressure on Russia, we’re also determined that this war not expand, not get broader.
As we were speaking to Secretary Blinken, news broke that a UN investigative commission had found evidence of rape and torture of children in Russian-occupied Ukraine.
Scott Pelley: The panel goes on to say, “Based on the evidence gathered by the commission, it has concluded that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine.” What does justice look like for Ukraine?
Antony Blinken: Justice looks like accountability, accountability for those who perpetrated these war crimes, these atrocities, as well as for those who ordered them. And it’s one of the reasons, Scott, why– we’re doing everything we can to support those who are trying to compile the evidence. And to investigate. And ultimately, to prosecute those responsible.
Scott Pelley: To prosecute? You believe there should be war crime trials?
Antony Blinken: I was in Ukraine a couple of weeks ago. One of the places I visited was a city called Irpin, And I saw residential buildings, building block after building block, totally bombed out this was the totally indiscriminate use of force. wherever the Russian tide recedes, what’s left in its wake is very clear evidence of atrocities and war crimes.
Atrocities were laid before the UN Security Council last Thursday, drawing from the Russian foreign minister a dubious defense.
Scott Pelley: When Sergey Lavrov says that, the atrocities have been staged and it is Russia that is the victim, Tony Blinken is sitting there thinking what?
Antony Blinken: This is “Alice in Wonderland.” It’s the world upside down. Up is down, white is black– truth is false. But here’s the thing, Scott. All of these words, all of these words ring totally hollow to every member on the Security Council. So this spewing of words– is not having an effect. On the contrary, I think it just shows the total disconnect between Russia and virtually the entirety of the rest of the world.
At the moment we spoke to the secretary, Russia was hurrying through what it calls “elections” to force these areas of Ukraine’s occupied east and south into the Russian Federation.
Antony Blinken: These so-called elections are a sham, period. They go in. They put in puppet governments, local governments. And then they proceed with a vote, which they’ll manipulate in any event in order to try to declare the territory Russian territory. It is not. It will never be recognized as such. And the Ukrainians have every right to take it back.
Blinken came to our interview after meeting China’s foreign minister. China has been raising pressure on the democratic island of Taiwan which, in our conversation last week, President Biden pledged to defend with force.
Scott Pelley, last week: So unlike Ukraine, to be clear, sir, US Forces, US men and women would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion?
President Joe Biden, last week: Yes.
But official US policy is, and has been for decades, to remain ambiguous about defending the island.
Antony Blinken: China has acted increasingly aggressively when it comes to Taiwan. That poses a threat to peace and stability in the entire region.
Scott Pelley: The Chinese foreign minister must have asked you to explain the President’s remarks.
Antony Blinken: Well, we had a conversation about our different approaches– to Taiwan, and I reiterated what– what the President has said, and what he’s said clearly and consistently. Our continued adherence to the– the One China Policy– our determination that– the differences be resolved peacefully– our insistence– that peace and stability be maintained in the Taiwan Straits, and our deep concern that China was taking actions to try to change that status quo. That’s what the issue is.
Blinken warns that turbulence in the Taiwan Strait would wash around the world.
Antony Blinken: Taiwan itself, were anything to happen, it is where virtually all the semiconductors– are– are made. One of the– one of the reasons we’re now investing so heavily in our own capacity to produce semiconductors here in the United States. We designed them, but the actual production is done in a handful of places, and Taiwan produces most of them if that’s disrupted the effects that that would have on the global economy could be devastating.
Last week on 60 Minutes, the president of Iran told Lesley Stahl he would consider re-entering the deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The Trump administration had canceled it. Blinken doubts that Iran is serious.
Antony Blinken: Iran has continued to try to add extraneous issues to the negotiation that we’re simply not going to say yes to. We will not accept a bad deal, the response that they’ve given to the last proposals put forward by our European partners has been a very significant step backwards. And so, I don’t see any prospects in the very near term to– to bring this to a conclusion.
Antony Blinken is 60. One of his grandparents was born in Ukraine, his stepfather survived the Holocaust. And his father was a US ambassador. Blinken has spent 30 years in foreign policy for Democrats mostly in the Senate and the White House. He was in the back of the room during the strike on Osama Bin Laden. His philosophy on American diplomacy is robust engagement with what he calls, humility and confidence.
Antony Blinken: If we don’t engage, if we’re not leading, then one of two things, either someone else is and probably not in a way that’s gonna advance our interests and values, or no one is, and then you tend to have chaos. You get a vacuum that’s filled by bad things before it’s filled with good things. Because the world does not organize itself. There’s not a single big problem that’s affecting the lives of our citizens that we can effectively solve alone. Whether it’s climate, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s the effect of all of these emerging technologies on our lives, we have to be working with others to try to shape all of this in a way that’s actually gonna make our people, as well as others people, a little bit more secure, a little bit more prosperous, a little bit more full of opportunity.
Scott Pelley: Given January 6th, given the fabricated controversy over the election results, do you find that countries around the world are worried about the stability of the United States?
Antony Blinken: It’s no secret that we have challenges within our own democracy. They’re playing out before the entire world. We don’t sweep them under the rug, even when it’s painful. So I’m able to say to other countries that bring these up, yes, we’ve got our problems, but we’re confronting them. We’re dealing with them. You might do the same thing.
Scott Pelley: Your father was US ambassador to Hungary. And as we sit here on Friday afternoon, he passed away last night. And I wonder why you decided to keep such a busy schedule the day after that tragedy in your family.
Antony Blinken: My father was 96 years old. He was in so many ways my role model. he built a remarkable business, one of the leading investment banks in this country over many years, He led a life of dignity, of decency, of modesty that is something I’ve very much aspired to. And so I– I guess I thought that — honoring everything that he shared with me, the best way to do that was to continue doing my job.
That job, for the foreseeable future, will be consumed with a question that has defeated generations of diplomats—how to keep a small war in Europe from igniting the world.
Scott Pelley: Are there any talks currently that we may not have heard about?
Antony Blinken: There are no talks because Russia has not demonstrated any willingness at this moment to engage in meaningful discussions. If and when that changes, we will do everything we can to support a diplomatic process.
Scott Pelley: Is Vladimir Putin losing this war?
Antony Blinken: He’s already lost in terms of what he was trying to achieve. Because keep in mind, what he said very clearly from the start is, his objective was to erase Ukraine’s identity as an independent country, that has already failed. Ukrainians are fighting for their own land. They’re fighting for their own country. The Russians are not. And these Russian soldiers who are being thrown into this conflict, often not knowing where they’re going or what they’re doing– this is not something that they want to be fighting for. The Ukrainians are fighting for their own future. They’re fighting for their own land. They’re fighting for their own lives.
Produced by Aaron Weisz and Pat Milton. Associate producer, Ian Flickinger. Broadcast associate, Michelle Karim. Edited by April Wilson. Thanks to Pamela Falk, CBS News.