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U.S. Postpones Long Range Missile Test Amid Nuclear Tensions With Russia

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Seeking to avoid escalating nuclear tensions with Russia, the Biden Administration on Wednesday postponed a long-planned military test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. The decision was a direct response to Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly directing Russia’s nuclear forces to go on a high alert status following his Feb. 24 invasion of neighboring Ukraine, U.S. officials said. “We have no intention in engaging in any actions that can be misunderstood or misconstrued,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday. “We did not take this decision lightly, but instead to demonstrate that we are a responsible nuclear power.”

The missile test postponement shows just how fraught relations between the U.S. and Russia have become amid the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. The Biden Administration is trying to avoid escalation with Russia while simultaneously maintaining deterrence and pressure on Moscow in coordination with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. The two nations’ thermonuclear weapon arsenals loom in the background every day the war continues.

The U.S. military scrubbed the ICBM launch out of fears that it could be interpreted as a cautionary show of force. The tests are carefully choreographed activities that are planned several years in advance. But rather than risk it being taken the wrong way by the Kremlin, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin simply decided to indefinitely push it back. “It is a wise and prudent decision by the secretary to send a strong clear, unambiguous message to Mr. Putin, how seriously we take our nuclear responsibilities at a particularly tense time,” Kirby said. “Tension, I might add, that Mr. Putin contributed to, with this unhelpful, unnecessary rhetoric with respect to alert status on his nuclear posture.”

On Sunday, Putin ordered his nuclear forces to have “special combat readiness” after the U.S. and European allies levied sweeping economic sanctions on Russia for its unprovoked assault on Ukraine. U.S. government and independent analysts said it brought no immediate change in the status of Russia’s strategic arsenal, but the nuclear saber-rattling stoked fears around the globe. “This is definitely a good time for the U.S. to act as the adult in the room and do nothing that smacks of escalation,” said James Stavridis, a retired U.S. admiral and former NATO supreme commander.

The U.S. Air Force routinely tests its Minuteman III missile fleet with launches from Vandenberg Space Force Base, located northwest of Santa Barbara, Calif. The 60-ft. unarmed nuclear missile, equipped with a test reentry vehicle, blasts into the outer reaches of the atmosphere, arcing 4,200 miles around the world to a target range near the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The test flights are carried out to ensure the Minuteman is still capable of performing its mission. The 50-year old nuclear-tipped missiles are designed to carry city-busting warheads to any place on the globe in 30-minutes or less.

The White House has held out hope it could end the violence in Ukraine diplomatically. Months of talks with Moscow, however, have failed to deter Putin. The U.S. and the rest of NATO have stayed out of the fighting in Ukraine, but have provided more than $1 billion in military aid to the former Soviet-bloc nation as it faces a daily Russian onslaught from the air, land and sea.

Rose Gottemoeller, former deputy secretary general of NATO and a retired U.S. diplomat, said postponing the test launch was prudent. Russia, despite Putin’s heated rhetoric, has also demonstrated nuclear restraint by opting not to launch strategic bomber flights during its military assault on Ukraine, she said. “Such flights had become quite regular in the run-up to the invasion,” Gottemoeller said.

The Russian advance in Ukraine is going slower than expected with the military incurring logistics problems and Ukrainian forces showing stiff resistance. Already the Russians have unleashed indiscriminate attacks on densely populated cities, leading to widespread accusations the forces are targeting civilians. Intentional or not, the bombardment has created a humanitarian crisis with 875,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine as of Mar. 2, according to the UNHCR.

If Putin’s forces continue to be bogged down fighting a Ukrainian army that is outgunned and outnumbered, some experts worry the danger of a wider, more catastrophic confrontation will only rise. “The risk of nuclear war is higher than it has been in decades,” said Stephen Young of the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. “With tensions so high, any misstep by the West could lead to devastating consequences, particularly given the warnings Putin has already issued. The Pentagon was wise to delay this test, and should seek other ways to reduce the chances of miscalculation.”

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com