Russia to hold tactical nuclear weapons training amid new tensions with the West

Russia announced on Monday that it would conduct military exercises with troops based near Ukraine to train for the possible use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield, and two European leaders said they would push the West more directly into war. Tensions with the West gradually escalated after China raised the possibility of further intervention.

These weapons, often called “tactical”, are designed for use on the battlefield and have smaller warheads than “strategic” nuclear weapons that target cities. Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced that President Vladimir V. Putin ordered training for missile, aviation and naval personnel to “increase the readiness of non-strategic nuclear forces to carry out combat missions.”

The announcement of the exercise was Russia’s clearest warning in more than two years of its invasion of Ukraine that tactical nuclear weapons could be used.

The exercise will involve troops from the Southern Military District, an area that covers Russian-occupied Ukraine and part of the Russian-Ukrainian border area, the Ministry of Defense said. He said the exercise would take place in the “near future.”

The order comes as the Russian leader faces a high-profile inauguration ceremony scheduled for Tuesday and the annual Victory Day celebrations commemorating the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II on Thursday. The order was issued at the beginning of a week to promote it.

The day also coincided with a visit to Europe by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who promised an “unrestricted” alliance with Russia. Despite persistent lobbying from the West to refrain from supporting Russia’s war, China has supported Russia’s military industry, US officials said.

Western officials have long feared that Russia could deploy tactical nuclear weapons, especially if faced with a serious setback on the battlefield. However, Mr. Putin was denied As recently as March, he considered doing so, even as he regularly reminded the world of Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal as a way to check Western military aid to Ukraine.

But on Monday, Russian officials insisted that warnings about the possibility of Western countries becoming more directly involved in the war had changed the situation. The Defense Ministry said the exercise was being held “to counter provocative statements and threats of individual Western officials against the Russian Federation and to unconditionally ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian state.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov said the Western “threats” in question included recent attacks. interview In a co-authored article with French President Emmanuel Macron published in The Economist, the French leader repeatedly refused to rule out sending ground troops to Ukraine.

Peskov also referred to comments made last week by Britain’s top diplomat David Cameron, who said Ukraine was free to use British weapons to attack inside Russia. To avoid further involvement in the war.

“This is a completely new escalation of tensions, an unprecedented situation,” Peskov told reporters on Monday. “And of course, it requires special care and special measures.”

Later that day, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it had summoned the British ambassador to lodge a “strong protest” with Russia over Cameron’s comments, saying he was “effectively recognizing his country as party to the conflict”. insisted.

“The ambassador was asked to consider the inevitable and catastrophic consequences of such hostile measures from London,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

After a failed Ukrainian counterattack last year, Russia took control of the battlefield. But Russia’s progress remains slow and bloody, with deliveries of new Western weapons underway, including from a $61 billion military aid package approved by the United States last month.

The Kremlin hopes to dissuade Western countries from increasing support for Ukraine and exploit divisions within the NATO military alliance over the risks. The division has been evident since February, when Mr Macron first mentioned the possibility of keeping Western troops in the country. Ukraine. Peskov said such actions would lead to a direct conflict with the Russian military.

More than two years ago, Macron sought to prevent an invasion of Ukraine by threatening to incorporate Russia into a new European security architecture, but recent months have signaled a more hawkish shift.

On Monday, Russia’s announcement of tactical nuclear exercises drew a sharp reaction from NATO.

NATO spokesperson Farah Dahlala said: “Russia’s nuclear rhetoric is dangerous and irresponsible.” “NATO remains vigilant.”

“Ukraine has the right of self-defense as enshrined in the United Nations Charter, and NATO allies will continue to support Ukraine,” he added. Russia started this illegal war and it must end. ”

Pavel Podvig, a Geneva-based Russian nuclear forces researcher, said in an interview that Russia has conducted such exercises before, but rarely made them public. But this time, the goal is to send a loud message.

“This is a reaction to certain statements, a signal that Russia has nuclear weapons,” Podvig said in a telephone interview.

Unlike strategic nuclear weapons, which are always ready for combat, non-strategic nuclear weapons are stored in warehouses away from the bombers, missiles and ships that carry them, Podvig said. During the exercise, Russian military formations will likely practice how to deploy, he said.

However, Podvig added that their use in the context of the Ukraine war makes little sense, as their impact on the battlefield is limited without large, concentrated force formations.

Other analysts have also questioned the military effectiveness of using nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine, given the dispersed nature of the Ukrainian military.War Research Institute Said In 2022, it said doing so would be a “massive gamble with limited benefits” for Russia.

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

Putin has not publicly commented on the drill. He is scheduled to be sworn in for his fifth term as president on Tuesday.

Western governments have previously warned Russia’s nuclear use against China, Russia’s most important international partner, as in 2022, when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Beijing during the last scare. I was hoping that it would be stopped.

At the time, Mr. Xi issued a public statement warning that there would be no nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war. The topic resurfaced on Monday as Mr Xi met with European leaders in Paris on his first visit to the continent in five years.

European Union (EU) executive chairman Ursula von der Leyen told reporters on Monday after a meeting between Xi and Macron that “President Xi has a key role in defusing Russia’s irresponsible nuclear threat.” He has fulfilled his role.” “We are confident that President Xi will continue to maintain this stance against the backdrop of the ongoing nuclear threat posed by Russia.”

She also called on China to “use all leverage against Russia to end its war of aggression against Ukraine.”

Ivan Necheplenko Batumi, Georgia, Lara Jakes in Rome, Steven Erlanger in Berlin, and Mark Landler in London contributed reporting.

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