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Russia, Belarus Begin Second Stage of Joint Tactical Nuclear Weapon Drills

Published: June 12, 2024
A view shows an Iskander missile launching system capable of carrying a nuclear warhead during the second stage of tactical nuclear drills of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at an undisclosed location, in this still image from video released June 11, 2024. (Image: Russian Defense Ministry/Handout via REUTERS)

On June 11 (Tuesday), the Russian government announced the second stage of drills to practice the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons alongside the Belarusian military. The Kremlin had previously described the exercises as a response to threats from Western powers. 

Russia says the United States and its European allies are pushing the world to the brink of nuclear confrontation by giving Ukraine billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to fight Russian troops. Recently, Washington has authorized Ukraine to use these weapons to launch strikes into Russian territory itself. 

Since Feb. 24 2022, the day Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, he has repeatedly said Russia could use nuclear weapons to defend itself in extreme situations, comments that the West has dismissed as saber-rattling.

In the first stage of the drills, Russian troops trained in the process of arming and deploying Iskander missiles, while the air force trained how to arm Kinzhal hypersonic missiles.

The second stage involves working out joint training of Russian and Belarusian units “for the combat use of non-strategic nuclear weapons,” the defense ministry said.

Belarus, a country of about 10 million directly to the west of Russia, is a close ally of the Kremlin. Together with Ukraine and 13 other now-independent countries, including Russia, it was part of the Soviet Union, which broke apart in 1991. 

In footage released by the defense ministry, an Iskander missile system was shown being driven into a field and the missiles were raised. Also shown were MiG-31 supersonic interceptors carrying Kinzhal missiles, and Tupolev Tu-22M3 long-range supersonic bombers.

Putin said on Friday, June 7 that Russia had no need to use nuclear weapons to secure victory in Ukraine. 

He also said he did not rule out changes to Russia’s nuclear doctrine, which sets out the conditions under which such weapons could be used.

The United States says it has seen no change to Russia’s strategic posture, though senior intelligence officials say they have to take Moscow’s remarks about nuclear weapons seriously.

According to the Federation of American Scientists, Russia and the United States are by far the world’s biggest nuclear powers, holding about 88 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons total. That proportion, however, is shrinking as countries like China and North Korea build up their own stockpiles. 

“Tactical nuclear weapons” are designed for use on the battlefield, rather than for targeting enemy cities and infrastructure, so they are generally less powerful than strategic nuclear weapons. 

The United States has about 100 non-strategic B61 nuclear weapons deployed in five European countries — Italy, Germany, Turkey, Belgium and the Netherlands, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The U.S. has another 100 such weapons within its borders.

Russia has about 1,558 non-strategic nuclear warheads, though arms control experts say it is very difficult to say just how many there are due to secrecy.

A senior White House aide said June 7 that the U.S. might have to deploy more strategic nuclear weapons in coming years to deter Russia, China and others.

Reuters contributed to this report.