Is this a drill? Upcoming Russian nuclear exercises a challenge for the West

BRUSSELS: With Russia expected to soon carry out large-scale drills of its nuclear forces as President Vladimir Putin threatens to use them, the United States and its allies will be challenged to ensure they can spot the difference between exercises and the real thing.

Russia typically holds major annual nuclear exercises around this time of year, and US and Western officials expect them perhaps in just days. They will likely include the test launch of ballistic missiles, US officials say.

But with Putin having openly threatened to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia in its unraveling invasion of Ukraine, some Western officials are worried Moscow could deliberately try to muddy the waters about its intentions.

“This is why you don’t want to have extraordinarily overheated rhetoric at the same time you’re going to do a nuclear exercise,” a Western official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Because then we do have an additional challenge to really be sure that the actions that we see, the things that are occurring, are actually an exercise and not something else.”

Still, the official expressed “high confidence” in the West’s ability to make this distinction.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg assured a news conference in Brussels that the alliance would monitor Russia’s annual nuclear drills very closely, as it has for decades.

At the White House, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Russia’s so-called “Grom” drills would involve large scale maneuvers of its strategic nuclear forces, including live missile launches. He described them as “routine”.

“While Russia probably believes this exercise will help it project power, particularly in light of recent events, we know that Russian nuclear units train extensively at this time of year,” Kirby said, adding the US would “monitor that accordingly”.

A US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Russian drills were expected to be carried out about the same time as NATO’s own annual nuclear preparedness exercise, which is dubbed “Steadfast Noon” and will begin next week.

“We believe that Russian nuclear rhetoric and its decision to proceed with this exercise while at war with Ukraine is irresponsible,” the official told Reuters.

“Brandishing nuclear weapons to coerce the US and its allies is irresponsible.”

The Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

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