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Russia’s tactical nuke drills are Putin’s latest effort to restore fear in his ‘red lines,’ but it might actually work this time

Source: Meduza
Vitaly Nevar / Sputnik / IMAGO / SNA / Scanpix / LETA

This week, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that President Putin has ordered preparations for drills to test the combat readiness of the country’s tactical nuclear weapons. In a series of statements from Russian military spokespeople, senior diplomats, and the Kremlin’s press secretary, Moscow has explained the unscheduled exercises as a response to Western rhetoric about military aid to Ukraine, framing the expanded assistance as an intervention that directly endangers (internationally recognized) Russian territory and risks spiraling out of control. This first official nuclear threat since February 2022 to punish the West for supporting Ukraine is likely the Kremlin’s attempt to restore its faded “red lines” in the war. Meduza explains how the nuke drills are militarily unremarkable but might nevertheless be an effective deterrent amid Western concerns about uncontrolled escalation.

’Non-strategic nuclear forces’

This refers to Russia’s (typically low-yield) nuclear warheads and their short- and medium-range delivery systems, which haven’t been formally limited under any arms control agreement since the U.S. withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019. While Russia’s nuclear triad of ICBM-equipped submarines, heavy bombers, and strategic missile forces stands at permanent readiness (in case of attack), its non-strategic nuclear forces aren’t on constant combat duty, and using these weapons requires transfers from warehouses, installations, and so on, which is what the military practices in exercises like those recently announced.

While not uncommon, drilling to use tactical nuclear weapons is a complex technical procedure that demands the coordinated effort of a large number of officers and their staff to mount the specialized warheads on carriers and prepare them for use. Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the military practiced these drills regularly (for example, in missile brigades equipped with Iskander systems). The Southern Military District will be responsible for carrying out Russia’s upcoming exercise. The Russian army has also periodically test-fired missiles (including potential carriers of tactical nuclear weapons) at a range located in the abandoned mining town of Kholmogory-Yu in the Komi Republic.

Despite the differences from strategic forces, using a tactical nuclear weapon is still subject to Russia’s official nuclear doctrine, which stipulates the conditions of a direct threat to the nation’s sovereignty, the country’s integrity, or a first strike by an enemy against Russia’s own strategic forces. 

Revisiting Putin’s original nuclear brinkmanship

The special context of the upcoming drills

Russia’s upcoming exercise is distinct because the Kremlin is officially justifying the unscheduled drill as a response to NATO members sending more advanced, longer-range weapons like ATACMS and F-16s, to comments from Western leaders about Kyiv’s right to attack targets inside Russia, and to rhetoric that entertains deploying Western troops to Ukraine. Though Zelensky adviser Mykhailo Podolyak recently told Meduza that Washington still restricts how Ukraine uses its U.S.-supplied ATACMS, Moscow is clearly concerned that Kyiv could fire such weaponry at targets well inside Russia.

The most effective use of long-range missiles against Russia would be strikes on the airfields used to launch attacks against Ukraine. In recent months, Russian gains on the battlefield owe much to the increased use of guided glide bombs operating beyond the reach of most Ukrainian air defense systems. Almost all the airbases used for these strikes are located on internationally recognized Russian soil. To continue its successful use of guided glide bombs, Moscow must protect these airfields from long-range Ukrainian counterattacks.

Western supplies of F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine are one form of military aid that seemed inconceivable earlier in the war due to Western fears of uncontrolled escalation. Immediately after launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia organized large-scale exercises of its strategic forces, declaring that the drills were a warning to the West. President Putin subsequently hinted on multiple occasions that he might use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine if he feels Russia’s vital national security is at risk.

Over the past two years, however, the Kremlin has failed to maintain its red lines, as NATO members have sent ever-more sophisticated and lethal equipment to defend against Russia’s invasion — from tanks and artillery to ballistic missiles for HIMARS multiple rocket launch systems with a range of up to 90 kilometers (56 miles) and cruise missiles with a range of up to 300 kilometers (186 miles). Moscow’s inability to deter Kyiv’s allies after each new weapon arrives perhaps culminated in French President Emmanuel Macron saying openly in March 2024 that the West should respect no red lines when it comes to aiding Ukraine.

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Moscow’s mission to frighten the West again

Political scientists like Sergey Karaganov and Dmitry Trenin have argued that Moscow’s current threshold for using nuclear weapons is “unacceptably high.” While decision-makers in the Kremlin have rejected the idea of carrying out a tactical nuclear strike to restore respect for its red lines, Moscow nevertheless struggles to hold NATO members to its hard limits in their intervention in Ukraine. Without rewriting Russia’s nuclear doctrine, the Kremlin is now signaling that it might consider attacks deeper inside Russian territory to qualify as an existing justification for a retaliatory strike using tactical nuclear weapons. 

Pavel Podvig, a nuclear arms expert at the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research, says Russia’s drills are, “of course, a signal,” and he urges the world to avoid “getting sucked into this.” “The right response is to double down on ‘nuclear threats are inadmissible’ and rally everyone around that,” he wrote on May 6.

Yet, Moscow’s latest nuclear threats come at a time when they might achieve results. Western commitments to Ukraine have been stretched thin after more than two years of war, and many politicians in Europe and the United States still fear that military aid to Kyiv might eventually cause an escalation spiral. If these concerns keep limits in place on how Ukraine uses its Western-supplied weapons, the equipment will be much less effective against Russia’s invasion.

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