Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday said “there are no checks” on Russian President Vladimir Putin and he would be the only person in his country to determine whether to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
Putin on Friday vowed to use “all available means” to protect the four Ukraine regions he annexed — Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — following referendums Moscow held in those territories. The votes have been denounced as a “sham” by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and condemned by the West.
Putin’s statement has been interpreted as a threat over the use of nuclear weapons.
Austin told CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” he has in the past spoken to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, and warned him against going in that direction, but the decision will ultimately be made by Putin himself.
“I do think he heard my message, but to be clear, the guy who makes that decision — I mean, it’s one man. There are no checks on Mr. Putin,” Austin said. “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.”
Last month, Putin had issued a similar warning, saying he wasn’t bluffing about doing anything in his power to protect Russia.
“What we have to do is take it very seriously, watch for signs of actual preparations,” CIA Director William Burns told CBS Evening News last week.
Austin also spoke on the progress of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, which appears to be weakening Russia’s position in the battlefield, and in part the trigger for Putin’s decision to move ahead with the annexations.
“What we’re seeing now is a kind of change in the battlefield dynamics,” Austin told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “They’ve done very, very well in the Kharkiv area and moved to take advantage of opportunities. The fight in the — the Kherson region’s going a bit slower, but they’re making progress.”
Putin also called up to 300,000 reservists to join his country’s forces in Ukraine. That order has been met with challenges, with Russians in some regions reportedly getting drafted despite their failure to meet the eligibility criteria.
Over the weekend, Ukraine retook control of the city of Lyman in the east, and continued moving into the Luhansk region, CNN reported, citing pro-Russian officials.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has fast-tracked its application to join the NATO military alliance. While it has earned the support of nine countries, it needs to have the backing of all 30 members to join.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.