BRUSSELS, Oct 13 (Reuters) – With Russia set to soon carry out large-scale exercises of its nuclear forces as President Vladimir Putin threatens to use them, the United States and its allies will be challenged to ensure that they can spot the difference between the exercises and the real thing.
Russia typically holds major annual nuclear exercises around this time of year, and U.S. and Western officials may be expecting them within days. They will likely include the launch of ballistic missile tests, according to US officials.
But with Putin having openly threatened to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia in its dismantling invasion of ukrainesome Western officials fear that Moscow is deliberately trying to cover up its intentions.
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“That’s why you don’t want to have extraordinarily overheated rhetoric at the same time that you’re going to do a nuclear exercise,” a Western official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Because then we have an added challenge to be really sure that the actions that we see, the things that happen, are actually an exercise and not something else.”
Still, the official expressed “great confidence” in the West’s ability to make that distinction.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told a press conference in Brussels that the alliance would closely monitor Russia’s annual nuclear exercises, as it has done for decades.
At the White House, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Russia’s so-called “Grom” drills would involve large-scale maneuvers of its strategic nuclear forces, including missile launches real. He described them as “routine”.
“While Russia likely believes this exercise will help it project power, especially in light of recent events, we know that Russian nuclear units train extensively at this time of year,” Kirby said. , adding that the United States would “monitor this accordingly”.
A US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Russian drills were to be carried out around the same time as NATO’s annual nuclear readiness exercise, which is dubbed “Steadfast Noon and will begin next week.
“We believe that Russia’s nuclear rhetoric and its decision to conduct this exercise while at war with Ukraine is irresponsible,” the official told Reuters.
“Wielding nuclear weapons to coerce the United States and its allies is irresponsible.”
The Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Officials have so far said Putin has yet to take action to suggest he is preparing to launch a nuclear strike, but Moscow’s nuclear rhetoric has intensified following a counter-offensive success of the Ukrainian army over the past month.
In recent weeks, Putin has proclaimed the annexation of Ukrainian territories and threatened to defend Russian land with nuclear weapons. A senior NATO official said Wednesday that any use of nuclear weapons by Russia could trigger a “physical response” from the alliance.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Thursday after a meeting of NATO’s nuclear planning group in Brussels that he had seen no “indication and warning” that would result in a change in the US nuclear posture.
Russia last exercised its nuclear forces in February, shortly before its invasion of Ukraine, in a move officials at the time believed was intended to discourage the West from backing Kyiv.
The Western official expected the drills to test “the Kremlin’s ability to provide control of forces and issue directives, and of the forces themselves to respond to those directives.”
The official anticipated that Russia would publicize aspects of the drills and use them to convey Moscow’s threats.
“We should expect there to be nuclear rhetoric during the exercise, so that they can leverage, the strategic communications advantage, the exercise itself,” the Western official said.
NATO’s annual nuclear exercise was scheduled before Russia invaded Ukraine, US officials said, adding it has been held regularly around the same time of year for more than a decade. ‘a decade. The bulk of the drills will take place more than 1,000 kilometers (625 miles) from Russia, the US defense official said.
Fourteen NATO countries are expected to be involved in the alliance exercises, which include fighter jets capable of carrying nuclear warheads – but do not involve live bombs, US officials said, adding that military bombers American B-52s would participate.
“While we will continue our routine activities to maintain our (nuclear) deterrence, there will be no special messaging around our exercises,” the US defense official said.
“We think the rattling of the nuclear saber is reckless and irresponsible. Russia can choose to play that game – but we won’t.”
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Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Peter Graff and Rosalba O’Brien
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