Putin orders tactical nuclear weapons exercises to deter the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a meeting of the Council of Legislators of the Federal Assembly in Saint Petersburg, Russia, April 26, 2024.

Alexey Danichev | Via Reuters

Russia said on Monday it would practice the use of tactical nuclear weapons as part of a military exercise, following what Moscow said were threats from France, Britain and the United States.

Since invading Ukraine in 2022, Russia has repeatedly warned of rising nuclear risks — warnings that the United States says it must take seriously, although U.S. officials say they have seen no change in Russia's nuclear posture

Russia says the United States and its European allies are pushing the world to the brink of a confrontation between nuclear powers by backing Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars in weapons, some of which are used against Russian territory.

The Russian Defense Ministry said it would hold military exercises, including exercises on preparation and deployment for the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons. It said the exercises were ordered by President Vladimir Putin.

“During the exercise, a series of measures will be carried out to practice the issues of the preparation and use of non-strategic nuclear weapons,” the ministry said.

Missile forces in the Southern Military District, aviation and the navy will participate, the Defense Ministry said.

Military vehicles drive along the Garden Ring towards Red Square for a rehearsal of the Victory Day military parade, with a theater building decorated with the letter Z, formed by a huge Russian patriotic black and orange Saint George ribbon – which has become a symbol of support for Russian military action in Ukraine – seen in the background, in central Moscow on April 28, 2022.

Natalia Kolesnikova | Episode | Getty Images

The exercise is aimed at safeguarding Russia's territorial integrity and sovereignty “in response to provocative statements and threats made by certain Western officials against the Russian Federation,” the report said.

Russia and the United States are by far the world's largest nuclear powers, with more than 10,600 of the world's 12,100 nuclear warheads. China has the third largest nuclear arsenal, followed by France and Britain.

According to figures, Russia has approximately 1,558 non-strategic nuclear warheads the Federation of American Scientists, opens a new tabalthough there is uncertainty about the exact figures for such weapons due to a lack of transparency.

No power has used nuclear weapons in war since the United States unleashed the first atomic bombings on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Major nuclear powers routinely monitor their nuclear weapons, but very rarely publicly link such exercises to specific perceived threats, as Russia has done.

Nuclear risks

US President Joe Biden said last year that he felt there was no real prospect of Russia using nuclear weapons, but CNN reported that top US officials did emergency planning, opens a new tab for a possible Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine in 2022.

Some Western and Ukrainian officials have said Russia is bluffing about nuclear weapons to scare the West, although the Kremlin has repeatedly indicated it would consider breaking the nuclear taboo if Russia's existence were at risk.

“We don't see anything new here,” said Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukrainian military intelligence. “Nuclear blackmail is a constant practice of Putin's regime.”

The Defense Ministry, led by Sergei Shoigu, a longtime ally of Putin, did not say which specific Western officials it was referring to in its statement.

The Kremlin said this was in response to comments from French President Emmanuel Macron, British officials and a U.S. Senate representative.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C,L) is welcomed by French President Emmanuel Macron (R) upon his arrival at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris on May 14, 2023.

Ludovic Marin | AFP | Getty Images

Macron has publicly floated the idea of ​​sending European troops to fight Russia in Ukraine, while British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said Ukraine had a right to use the weapons supplied by London to attack targets in Russia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Western statements about sending NATO soldiers to Ukraine amounted to “a completely new round of escalation of tension – it is unprecedented, and obviously requires special attention and special measures.”

Putin warned the West in March that direct conflict between Russia and the US-led NATO military alliance would mean the planet is one step away from Third World War but said almost no one wanted such a scenario.

War games

NATO, founded in 1949 to provide collective security against the Soviet Union, currently holds the 'Steady defender“exercise, the largest since the end of the Cold War. NATO has not said whether there would be a rehearsal of any nuclear elements.

U.S. Army M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks ride on M3 amphibious drilling rigs of the German/British Amphibious Engineer Battalion 130 as they cross the Vistula River during the NATO Dragon 24 military exercise on March 5, 2024 near Gniew, Poland.

Sean Gallup | Getty Images

A NATO nuclear command exercise in 1983 led to fears at top levels of the Kremlin that the United States was preparing for a surprise nuclear attack.

Within Russia, Putin has faced calls from some hardliners to change Russia's position nuclear doctrineoutlining the conditions under which Russia would use a nuclear weapon, although Putin said last year he saw no need for change.

Broadly speaking, the doctrine says that such a weapon would be used in response to an attack with nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, or to the use of conventional weapons against Russia “when the very existence of the state is threatened”.

Putin sees the war as part of a centuries-old struggle with the West, which he says humiliated Russia after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 by expanding NATO and encroaching on what Moscow sees as Russia's historic sphere of influence.

Ukraine and its Western allies say the war is an imperialist land grab by a corrupt dictatorship. Western leaders have pledged to work to defeat Russian forces in Ukraine, while ruling out any deployment of NATO personnel there.

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