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Putin Orders Tactical Nuclear Exercises in Response to Western Support for Ukraine.

| Ukraine - Russia conflict

In response to increased Western military support for Ukraine, Russia has scheduled tactical nuclear drills to test the readiness of its non-strategic nuclear forces. The drills, which were reported by Reuters on May 6, 2024, come as the United States and France are stepping up their military aid to Ukraine, heightening geopolitical tensions. The Russian Ministry of Defense stated that these maneuvers, ordered by President Vladimir Putin, are aimed at training units to deploy non-strategic nuclear weapons and will involve undisclosed missile and aviation formations in the Southern Military District, a strategic area that includes territories close to and occupied by Ukraine.

The TU-160 during the Victory Day Parade in Russia in 2013 (Picture source: Vitaly Kuzmin)

Following recent statements by French President Emmanuel Macron, who has not ruled out sending troops to Ukraine, the Russian Foreign Ministry criticized Macron for what it described as irresponsible remarks. It also made an unsubstantiated claim that mercenaries from the French Foreign Legion are present in Ukraine. The French Ministry of Defense has since denied this information. Macron's statements and the Russian response demonstrate a strategically ambiguous stance by the West, aiming to maintain credibility while defining the limits of Western military action. This posture aims to continue supporting Ukraine while deterring Russia by obscuring potential future actions.

This escalation serves as a reminder that the world could be edging closer to a direct confrontation between two nuclear powers: Russia and NATO. Russia has regularly discussed its nuclear capability in domestic discussions, with pressures for Putin to modify the country's nuclear doctrine to specify when and how these weapons might be used. Additionally, Russia has begun deploying tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus, thereby increasing regional tensions.

This tense context underscores the significance of the announced nuclear exercises as a specific response to developments in the West, signaling a potentially new and precarious era in nuclear signaling between Russia and the West.

Russia's nuclear arsenal, already formidable, continues to undergo significant modernizations aimed at replacing most Soviet-era armaments by the late 2020s. Russia's strategic nuclear forces comprise three components: land-based forces with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), an air component with strategic bombers, and a naval force with ballistic missile submarines.

Russian ICBMs include models such as the RS-24 Yars, a mobile missile capable of carrying multiple independently targetable nuclear warheads (MIRV), and the R-36M2 Voevoda, one of the most powerful missiles ever built, capable of carrying up to 10 thermonuclear warheads. The RS-28 Sarmat, also known as "Satan 2", is the latest addition to the arsenal, promising even greater missile defense penetration capabilities thanks to its speed and maneuverability.

Regarding strategic bombers, Russia operates the Tupolev Tu-160, a supersonic bomber capable of carrying long-range nuclear cruise missiles, and the Tu-95, which can launch cruise missiles from significant distances. These aircraft are regularly upgraded to enhance their survivability and operational effectiveness.

The naval component includes Borei-class submarines equipped with Bulava ballistic missiles. These submarines are designed to be less detectable and capable of launching their missiles from deep underwater, allowing them to remain hidden from enemy radar.

According to open sources, Russia has about 4,489 nuclear warheads, some deployed and others in reserve. The U.S. government estimates that Russia possesses up to 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, including short-range ballistic missiles, air-dropped gravity bombs, torpedoes, and artillery shells.

Russian nuclear doctrine, revised over the years since the end of the Cold War, states that nuclear weapons may be used in response to an attack with weapons of mass destruction against Russia or its allies, or in response to a conventional attack that threatens the very existence of the Russian state.

Infographic showing the different Russian land-based missiles in January 2021 (Picture source: CSIS)

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