Skip to content
Commentary | 29 May 2024

Quieting the nuclear rattle: Responding to Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons exercises

On 6 May 2024, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the president directed the military to conduct an exercise to test “practical aspects of the preparation and use of non-strategic nuclear weapons.” What was particularly notable in this announcement was that it was described as a response to “certain provocative statements and threats made by some Western officials.” The Foreign Ministry explained in a separate announcement that the statements in question were the words of the leaders of France and the United Kingdom, who suggested that the West should be more directly involved in the war in Ukraine, either by sending troops or by allowing Ukraine to use Western armaments to strike Russian territory.

Military exercises are not uncommon, including those involving non-strategic nuclear forces. NATO holds an annual Steadfast Noon nuclear exercise in Europe, and France conducts regular exercises as well (and, by coincidence, conducted a test of a nuclear-capable cruise missile around the time of the Russian exercise). However, while these are indeed meant to be part of the deterrence messaging, none of them has ever been as explicitly linked to specific political or military developments as the one announced by Russia. The Kremlin was clearly sending a message intended to convey its readiness to escalate, and this was certainly not the first time that Moscow has attempted to bring its nuclear weapons into the context of its invasion of Ukraine. This time, however, there was a material aspect to this attempt as the exercise was to involve the military units responsible for handling and using nuclear weapons.

The Kremlin was clearly sending a message intended to convey its readiness to escalate. Pavel Podvig

The exercise raised several questions about the dangers associated with it. Is it an attempt to go beyond signalling and bring non-strategic nuclear weapons closer to the frontline, prepared for use? How can one respond to such an explicit demonstration of nuclear weapons capabilities?

The first question appears to have a reasonably clear answer. On 21 May 202, the Ministry of Defense reported that it began the first part of the exercise involving Iskander-M missiles and air force units that operate Kinzhal missiles. The official video of the exercise showed that it involved Iskander-M ballistic and cruise missiles, a Tu-22M3 bomber, and a MiG-31K aircraft carrying Kinzhal. The video showed elements of the procedures that an exercise of this kind would test.

In the Russian practice, non-strategic nuclear weapons are normally stored in a relatively small number of dedicated storage sites. The preparation for use would require taking weapons out of storage and their transfer to designated rendezvous points, where they are to be mated with their delivery systems. This is exactly what can be seen in the official account. Although the video appears to have been staged for the cameras, at least one of the systems shown, the Iskander-M cruise missile, was sufficiently different from previously seen missiles, suggesting that it is a nuclear-capable version. At the same time, nothing indicated that the exercise involved anything other than training replicas of weapons or that actual nuclear weapons were indeed removed from the storage sites.

The structure of the exercise also explains Belarus’s role. Belarus announced—apparently to the great surprise of its Russian partners—that it had also taken part in the training. The Belarusian military appears to have tested its part of the procedure—the dispersal of aircraft and missile launchers, activities that can be conducted without the involvement of the Russian army units that handle nuclear weapons.

Although it appears that the second part of the exercise, which might involve naval weapons, is still in the works, all evidence indicates that it is not the preparation for introducing nuclear weapons into the war. The exercise was intended to work as a political signal and likely achieved this purpose.

A more difficult question is: What is the appropriate response to this kind of signalling? Nobody seriously expects Western officials to walk back the statements that provoked Russia’s move. Indeed, discussions of more direct Western involvement in the conflict continue and may have even intensified. At the same time, it would be wrong to ignore Russia’s actions completely, if only to prevent it from moving to more provocative actions. The Kremlin appears to be following the signalling path charted by a number of hawkish Russian experts, and it cannot be ruled out that it is prepared to take more steps up the escalation ladder.

Opposition to nuclear use is a powerful unifying message that can bring together states that may have diverging views on the war in Ukraine. Pavel Podvig

To prevent this from happening, the international community must double down on its message that nuclear threats are inadmissible. The universal and consolidated backlash against nuclear threats was one of the main factors that helped quiet the nuclear rhetoric surrounding the war. To make this backlash more effective, Western states should tone down their own message of reliance on nuclear deterrence and work together with a broad coalition of states, from their allies to China and India and the states parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Opposition to nuclear use is a powerful unifying message that can bring together states that may have diverging views on the war in Ukraine. Such a coalition can render nuclear threats politically untenable, opening more options for supporting Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Wikimedia, Presidential Executive Office of Russia