Western press preoccupied: “Russia to hold drills on tactical nuclear weapons in new tensions with West”

10:53 10.05.2024 •

Intercontinental ballistic missile launchers parading through Moscow. Such missiles are used for “strategic” nuclear weapons meant to target cities, as opposed to “tactical” ones designed for battlefield use.
Photo: Agence France-Presse

President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s military to carry out combat drills involving tactical nuclear weapons, ramping up his confrontation with the West, Bloomberg writes.

The army will carry out exercises in southern Russia to “practice the preparation and use of non-strategic nuclear weapons,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement. The drills involving air and naval forces are being held in response to “provocative statements and threats made by certain Western officials,” it said.

In February, the Russian leader warned the North Atlantic Treaty Organization it risked a nuclear conflict if the alliance were to send troops to Ukraine.

The US and Europe “must understand that we also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory and that all this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons, and therefore the destruction of civilization,” Putin said in his annual state-of-the-nation address.

That threat came after French President Emmanuel Macron refused to rule out sending troops to Ukraine, even as the idea was rebuffed by other NATO allies.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday blamed Macron and UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron for sparking “an unprecedented spike in tensions,” RIA Novosti reported. Cameron last week said Ukraine had the right to use weapons it receives from Britain to strike Russia.

The Foreign Ministry in Moscow later summoned the UK and French ambassadors, ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on her Telegram channel. The British ambassador was told that the Russian side considered Cameron’s words as evidence of a serious escalation and confirmation of London’s growing involvement in combat actions on Kiev’s side. Nigel Casey was warned that any UK military facilities and equipment on Ukrainian territory and beyond could be hit as a response to Ukrainian strikes on Russian territory with British weapons. The ambassador was urged to consider the inevitable disastrous repercussions of such hostile steps by London and to urgently refute in the strongest and most unequivocal manner the bellicose provocative statements by the head of the Foreign Office.

NATO is conducting large-scale military exercises near Russia's borders, which pose a danger to Moscow. The Westerners themselves are provoking Russia into a tough response.
Photo: NATO

Russian officials claimed the order was in response to comments from the West about the possibility of more direct involvement in Ukraine, writes The New York Times. In NATO they were so surprised that they could only say: Russia’s announcement “irresponsible.”

These weapons, often referred to as “tactical,” are designed for battlefield use and have smaller warheads than the “strategic” nuclear weapons meant to target cities. Russia’s Defense Ministry said that President Vladimir V. Putin had ordered an exercise for missile, aviation and naval personnel to “increase the readiness of nonstrategic nuclear forces to carry out combat missions.”

The announcement of the exercise was Russia’s most explicit warning in its more than two-year invasion of Ukraine that it could use tactical nuclear weapons there. The Kremlin said it came in response to comments by two European leaders that raised the prospect of more direct Western intervention in the war.

Asked about Mr. Putin’s order, John F. Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, said, “It’s just reckless and irresponsible for a leader of a major nuclear armed power to be ‘saber rattling’ the way that he is with respect to potential use of nuclear weapons.”

Western officials have long worried that Russia could deploy tactical nuclear weapons, especially if it faced serious setbacks on the battlefield. But Mr. Putin denied as recently as March that he had ever considered it, even as he regularly reminds the world of Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal as a way of keeping in check the West’s military support for Ukraine.

However, Russian officials claimed that warnings about the possibility of more direct Western involvement in the war had changed the situation. The Defense Ministry said the exercise would be held “to unconditionally ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian state in response to provocative statements and threats of individual Western officials against the Russian Federation.”

Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said the Western “threats” in question included a recent interview with President Emmanuel Macron of France published by The Economist, in which the French leader repeated his refusal to rule out sending ground troops to Ukraine.

Mr. Peskov also alluded to a comment made last week by David Cameron, Britain’s top diplomat, in which he said that Ukraine was free to use British weapons to strike inside Russia — a departure from Western governments’ typical policy of discouraging such strikes in order to avoid being drawn deeper into the war.

“This is a completely new round of escalation of tensions — it is unprecedented,” Mr. Peskov told reporters on Monday. “And, of course, it requires special attention and special measures.”

Russia has seized the battlefield initiative after a failed Ukrainian counteroffensive last year.

Pavel Podvig, a scholar on Russian nuclear forces based in Geneva, said in an interview that Russia had conducted such exercises before, though it rarely made them public. This time, however, the aim is to send a loud message, he said.

“This weapon system exists to send a signal,” Mr. Podvig said, adding that its main purpose is to make an impression on the opponent.


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