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Russia warns of nuclear weapon drills to ‘cool down’ West. Is it bluffing?

Click to play video: 'Ukraine has ‘right to strike back’ at Russia, UK foreign minister says amid new £3B aid package'
Ukraine has ‘right to strike back’ at Russia, UK foreign minister says amid new £3B aid package
WATCH: Ukraine has 'right to strike back' at Russia, U.K. foreign minister says amid new £3B aid package – May 3, 2024

Russia’s announcement Monday that it will begin practising the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in military drills could set a dangerous precedent for using nuclear threats in diplomacy, analysts warn.

The United States later said it would not be changing its nuclear posture in response to the announcement, underscoring what those experts say is the continued belief that Russia is unlikely to actually use nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine or against NATO allies.

“Russia’s nuclear rhetoric has been reckless and irresponsible throughout this conflict (with Ukraine),” U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters.

“That said, we have not seen any reason to adjust our own nuclear posture in response to these announcements, nor any indications that Russia is planning to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine.”

The White House and the Pentagon made similar comments, adding they have not seen any changes in Russia’s strategic force posture.

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White House national security spokesperson John Kirby added during a press briefing that if Russia is worried about its troops in Ukraine getting hit by foreign-supplied weapons, “the easiest thing to do is to take your troops and leave.”

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Russia has raised the spectre of nuclear warfare since it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. But the Kremlin warned that its tactical weapons drills were in direct response to “recent bellicose statements by Western officials” and actions taken by NATO to further arm Ukraine.

“We hope that this event will cool down the ‘hotheads’ in Western capitals,” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

On Tuesday, Belarus state media said President Alexander Lukashenko had ordered a surprise inspection of the readiness of its army to deploy tactical nuclear weapons.

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Lukashenko said in April that “several dozen” Russian tactical nuclear weapons had been deployed in Belarus under an agreement announced last year by himself and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Tactical nuclear weapons are designed for use on the battlefield, as opposed to strategic warheads designed to wipe out entire enemy cities.

What prompted Russia's announcement?

The Kremlin has specifically pointed to the delivery of U.S. ATACMS long-range weapons to Ukraine, which were in addition to British and French long-range missile systems already sent to Kyiv, as well as statements made by British and French officials about the war.

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During a visit to Kyiv last week, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron told Reuters in an interview that Ukraine has the “right” to respond to Russian attacks by striking targets inside Russia with long-range weapons supplied by the U.K.

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That remark countered years of concern from NATO allies, particularly the U.S., which delayed sending long-range weapons to Ukraine over fears it would further escalate the war by striking within Russia’s borders. The U.S. finally began sending its longest-range ATACMS to Ukraine last month and has promised more after Congress approved billions of dollars in new military aid.

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed in an interview with The Economist last week that he could not rule out the possibility of western troops being sent to Ukraine, a comment he first made earlier this year.

The Kremlin has long warned that both striking within Russia and sending western troops to Ukraine would be red lines that could lead to the deployment of nuclear weapons.

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Russia is technically ‘ready’ for nuclear war, Putin says

The foreign ministry said Monday it had summoned both the British and French ambassadors to Russia to formally protest the remarks made by Cameron and Macron, respectively.

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Britain denied that its ambassador Nigel Casey had been summoned, saying he had met Russian officials “for a diplomatic meeting” in which he “reiterated the U.K.’s support for Ukraine in the face of unprovoked Russian aggression.”

Yet Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that during the meeting, Russian officials warned Casey that if Ukraine struck Russian territory with British weapons, then Moscow could hit back at British military installations and equipment both inside Ukraine “and abroad.”

Is Russia bluffing?

Ukraine, similar to the U.S., appeared unconcerned about Russia’s latest announcement.

“We do not see anything new here,” Andriy Yusov, a spokesperson for Ukrainian military intelligence, told Reuters. “Nuclear blackmail is a constant practice of Putin’s regime.”

Nuclear weapons experts believe Putin may be seeking to show strength ahead of Moscow’s annual Victory Day celebrations on May 9, which are typically marked with displays of military might. Putin will also be sworn in for a fifth term as president on Tuesday.

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Putin may also be seeking to deter Ukraine from striking within Russia because it would puncture the “illusion of safety” he has created for the Russian people, said John Erath, a senior director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington.

“For most Russians, the war does not affect them,” he told Global News in an interview.

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An attack on Russian infrastructure “could have some effect on the Russian population’s willingness to continue to send their brothers off to die for — it’s not very clear what.”

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

Putin has faced calls inside Russia from some hardliners to change Russia’s nuclear doctrine, which sets out the conditions under which Russia would use a nuclear weapon, though Putin said last year he saw no need for change.

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

Erath said the continued threat of nuclear weapons makes it all the more critical to ensure Ukraine’s victory in the war. That includes ensuring Russia isn’t seen as having successfully used those threats to hold onto seized Ukrainian territory through any kind of negotiated peace agreement.

“That sets a very disturbing precedent of nuclear weapons becoming normalized as a tool of diplomacy,” he said.

“What is (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Un going to think about that? How is that going to affect his policy? How might China approach a Taiwan crisis? Will Iran decide to remain non-nuclear now that they have pretty much all capabilities they need to build such weapons?”

— with files from Reuters

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