Blog Post

Russian Wargame Practicing Tactical Nukes Use Is Warning to West

| May 22, 2024

The Russian defense ministry has just launched a multi-phase exercise near Ukraine meant to prepare its forces for using non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNWs). In addition to the obvious purpose of preparing Russian troops to use tactical nuclear weapons in battle, the multi-stage exercise is also meant to signal to the West that it should refrain from escalating assistance to Ukraine, as well as to warn the U.S. and its allies that Russia may liberalize its conditions for using nuclear weapons. Finally, the exercise may be evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to retain Valery Gerasimov as head of the General Staff, at least for now.

That the Russian armed forces are planning a NSNW wargame became publicly known on May 6, when the country’s defense ministry (MoD) issued a statement disclosing that Putin—who is the commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces—had ordered an exercise in the Southern Military District (SMD) to have MoD units practice using tactical nuclear weapons. The wargame is supposed to prepare these units for what the ministry described as “unconditionally ensuring the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian state in response to provocative statements and threats of individual Western officials against the Russian Federation,” according to the statement.1 The defense agency’s rather curt announcement was followed by a longer statement from the country’s foreign ministry (MFA), which said that the planned wargame “should be considered in the context of recent bellicose statements by Western officials and sharply destabilizing actions taken by a number of NATO countries that are aimed at building forceful pressure on the Russian Federation and at creating additional threats to the security of our country in connection with the conflict in and around Ukraine.”  

Echoing the MoD, the MFA said in its May 6 statement that the exercise would be aimed at practicing using NSNWs for the purpose of ensuring “the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian state.” Thus, both Russia’s MoD and MFA implied within hours of each other that Russia could resort to nuclear strikes to protect its territorial integrity (Condition 1) and sovereignty (Condition 2), even though the publicly available versions of Russia’s strategic documents do not explicitly mention either of these two conditions. While not explicitly mentioned as conditions for use of nuclear weapons in those documents, Condition 1 and Condition 2 have been mentioned by Russian leaders, respectively, at least 10 times and two times, in the period from Feb. 22, 2022, to May 5, 2024. As I wrote on May 6, these references may indicate that the Russian leadership may be considering introducing them in the next editions of Russia’s military doctrine (which currently dates back to 2014) and/or in the Basic Principles of State Policy on Nuclear Deterrence (which dates back to 2020). That the doctrinal language on nuclear weapons use may undergo this kind of liberalization is something that Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov implied in comments to Russian media on May 9. When asked in the same media opportunity if Russia could revise its nuclear doctrine to allow a preventive strike, Ryabkov said: "The environment itself is changing. This is why the correspondence between the basis documents in this sector and the need of ensuring our security is being constantly analyzed.” Speaking on the same day as Ryabkov, Putin chose not to discuss conditions for use of nuclear weapons, but he did comment on the NSNW wargame itself, claiming it was “nothing unusual.” Speaking with Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko beside him, Putin said on May 9 that the wargame will consist of three phases and that Belarus, which hosts some of Russian NSNWs, has been offered the opportunity to participate in the second phase.  

Nearly two weeks after Putin’s comments, the Russian MoD announced on May 21 that the first game of the NSNW wargame had begun in the Southern Military District, which abuts Ukraine. The missile units of the Russian Ground Forces in the SMD are practicing how to first deliver nuclear warheads to their delivery vehicles (the Iskander surface-to-surface missiles), then to install them in these missiles and then deploy them to the areas they would be launched from, according to the MoD statement. Meanwhile, Russian Aerospace Force units are practicing installing nuclear warheads into Kinzhal air-to-surface missiles, which are carried by warplanes (e.g. MiG-31 interceptors, in contrast to some earlier Zapad (West) wargames, in which long-range Tupolev bombers simulated launches of air-to-surface nuclear missiles), with these planes subsequently conducting flights in designated patrol areas, according to the MoD statement.2

As stated above, in addition to the obvious purpose of training its troops to use NSNWs, the Russian leadership means to use this exercise to signal to the West that it should refrain from escalating assistance to Ukraine following France’s (and some other NATO members’) warnings that they may send troops to Ukraine, as well as Britain’s decision to allow Ukraine to use U.K.-supplied weapons for strikes inside Russia.3 The wargame also appears to serve as a broader warning to the West that, if the high-intensity militarized stand-off between West and Russia continues over Ukraine and other issues, Russia may liberalize its conditions for use of nuclear weapons in its doctrinal documents. Finally, the exercise may be evidence that Putin intends to stick to his post-reshuffle intention to keep chief of the General Staff and first deputy defense minister Valery Gerasimov in his posts, at least for now, in spite of replacing Sergei Shoigu with Anatoly Belousov as the country’s defense minister. The NSNW wargame is being conducted under the “leadership of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces,” according to the MoD’s May 21 statement. If that language means Gerasimov is commanding the current wargame, then that indicates Putin meant it when he said upon firing Shoigu earlier this month that he has no plans to oust Gerasimov as well. After all, Gerasimov probably would not have been picked by Putin to command such an important wargame if Putin meant to fire him soon.

Footnotes:

  1. The same language then appeared in the MoD’s May 21 announcement that the exercise was beginning that day. “The ongoing exercise is aimed at maintaining the readiness of personnel and equipment of units for the combat use of non-strategic nuclear weapons to react as well as to unconditionally ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian state in response to provocative statements and threats of individual Western officials against the Russian Federation.”
  2. It should also be noted that the ongoing NSNW exercise is not the only major nuclear wargame that Russia might be holding this year. There is also one major annual wargame meant to train Russia’s strategic nuclear triad..
  3. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov cited these statements by the U.K. and France among the reasons why Russia decided to hold the NSNW wargame. 
  – Via Russia Matters.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Saradzhyan, Simon, "Russian Wargame Practicing Tactical Nukes Use Is Warning to West," Russia Matters, May 22, 2024.

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