Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the plenary session of congress of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs on April 25, 2024 in Moscow, Russia.

(Photo: Contributor/Getty Images)

Putin's Tactical Nuclear Weapons Drills Called 'Dangerous and Irresponsible'

"What is needed now is de-escalation," said ICAN. "Russia can still stop the exercises and should be called on to do so immediately by all states."

Disarmament advocates on Monday denounced the Russian Defense Ministry's plans to hold tactical nuclear weapons drills "in the near future," an announcement that came over two years into Russia's war on Ukraine.

"Russia announcing nuclear weapons exercises near Ukraine is dangerous and irresponsible. It must be widely condemned," the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) declared on social media. "This kind of brinkmanship, typical of 'nuclear deterrence' thinking, can spiral out of control and result in catastrophe."

'"Saber-rattling' like this is part of how all nuclear-armed states show they are serious about using nuclear weapons. But it's reckless: It increases the risk of nuclear weapons use, whether intentionally or by accident, at a time when it is at its highest since the Cold War," ICAN continued. "And let's not forget these 'exercises' train military personnel to mass murder civilians in seconds."

While strategic nuclear weapons are intended to wipe out cities, nonstrategic or tactical arms have shorter ranges and lower yields, and are designed for battlefield use. However, as ICAN highlighted, "'tactical' nuclear weapons could have up to 20 times the destructive power of the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima."'

"What is needed now is de-escalation. Russia can still stop the exercises and should be called on to do so immediately by all states," the group said, urging all "responsible states opposed to nuclear drills and nuclear blackmail" to join the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), passage of which earned ICAN the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

Since invading Ukraine in February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials have ramped up fears of nuclear war. Russia has the largest arsenal of the nine nuclear-armed nations, followed closely by the United States—which has armed Ukrainians throughout the ongoing war. The other countries known to have nukes are China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom. None of them support the TPNW.

As Reutersreported on Monday:

Some Western and Ukrainian officials have said Russia is bluffing over nuclear weapons to scare the West, though the Kremlin has repeatedly indicated that it would consider breaking the nuclear taboo if Russia's existence was threatened.

"We do not see anything new here," said Andriy Yusov, a spokesperson for Ukrainian military intelligence. "Nuclear blackmail is a constant practice of Putin's regime."

The Russian Defense Ministry said Monday that its exercises would involve troops of the Southern Military District—which, as The New York Timesnoted, is "an area that covers Russian-occupied Ukraine and part of Russia's border region with Ukraine."

The ministry explained on social media that its plans "to practice the preparation and use of nonstrategic nuclear weapons" come "in response to provocative statements and threats of individual Western officials against the Russian Federation."

Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesperson, echoed that reasoning for the drills, citing statements from British, French, and U.S. officials, according toTASS. He also told reporters that "deploying NATO soldiers to confront the Russian military in the latest escalation of tensions is an unprecedented move. And, of course, it requires special attention and special measures."

NATO in January launched the Steadfast Defender 2024 drills—its largest exercises since the Cold War, involving more than 90,000 troops, over 1,000 combat vehicles, and dozens of ships and aircraft. The drills in Poland are due to end this month.

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said that while "Putin has previously used nuclear rhetoric against [the] West during his war in Ukraine," this is the first time he knows of that the Russian leader has ordered tactical nuke drills in this district "with explicit reference to West," and it is "obviously intended as a signal."

"For NATO this is an opportunity to double down on condemnation of nuclear threats, reaffirm that nuclear war can't be won and should never be fought, and study how Russia operates its tac nuke forces in exercise," the expert added. "Just don't take the bait and respond with NATO nuke operations!"

Pavel Podvig, the Geneva-based director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project, agreed that "this is, of course, a signal." He urged Western leaders to "avoid... getting sucked into this" and rally the world around the message that "nuclear threats are inadmissible."

Responding to Podvig's remarks on social media, former ICAN executive director Beatrice Fihn pointed out that over 70 nations condemned threats to use nuclear weapons at the first TPNW meeting.

"I wish more NATO states would work with the TPNW states that have close connections to Russia to strengthen and support this kind of work," she said.

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