Russia will hold tactical nuclear weapons drills amid fresh tensions with the West

Russia said on Monday it will hold military exercises with troops based near Ukraine to practice the possible use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield, raising tensions with the West after two European leaders raised the prospect of more Western intervention headed into the war.

Such weapons, often called “tactical,” are designed for battlefield use and have smaller warheads than “strategic” nuclear weapons intended to strike cities. The Russian Defense Ministry said President Vladimir V. Putin had ordered a drill for missile, aviation and naval personnel to “increase the readiness of non-strategic nuclear forces to carry out combat missions.”

Russian officials said the order was in response to Western comments about the possibility of more direct Western involvement in the war in Ukraine. And it came at the start of a week of widespread publicity for the Russian leader, with his inauguration scheduled for Tuesday, followed on Thursday by the annual celebration of Victory Day, which commemorates the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945.

The announcement of the exercise was Russia's most explicit warning during its more than two-year invasion of Ukraine that it could use tactical nuclear weapons there.

Western officials have long feared that Russia might deploy such weapons, especially if it faced major setbacks on the battlefield. But Putin denied until March that he had ever considered it, even as he regularly reminds the world of Russia's vast nuclear arsenal as a way to keep the West's military support for Ukraine in check.

The Defense Ministry said the exercise will take place “to unconditionally guarantee the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian state in response to provocative statements and threats by individual Western officials against the Russian Federation.”

The exercise, the Defense Ministry said, would involve forces from the Southern Military District, an area covering Russian-occupied Ukraine and part of the border region between Russia and Ukraine. He said the exercise will take place “in the near future.”

Dmitri S. Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said the Western “threats” in question include a recent interview with French President Emmanuel Macron published by The Economist, in which the French leader reiterated his refusal to rule out sending ground troops in Ukraine.

Peskov also alluded to a comment made last week by David Cameron, Britain's top diplomat, in which he said Ukraine was free to use British weapons to strike inside Russia – a departure from the typical policy of Western governments to discourage such attacks in order to avoid being dragged deeper into the war.

“This is a completely new, unprecedented escalation of tension,” Peskov told reporters Monday. “And, of course, it requires special attention and special measures.”

Pavel Podvig, a scholar of Russia's nuclear forces, said in an interview that Russia had conducted such exercises before, although it had rarely made them public. This time, however, the goal is to send a strong message, he said.

“This is a reaction to specific statements, a signal that Russia has nuclear weapons,” Podvig said in a telephone interview.

Unlike strategic nuclear weapons, which are always combat-ready, nonstrategic ones are stored in warehouses far from the bombers, missiles or ships that are supposed to carry them, Podvig said. During the exercise, Russian army formations are likely to practice how they might be deployed, she said. But it would not make much sense to use them in the context of the war in Ukraine, Podvig added.

“This weapons system exists to send a signal,” he said.

Mr. Putin has made no public comments on the exercises. On Tuesday he is expected to begin his fifth term as president.

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Batumi, Georgia.

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