Russia has announced that its military will hold an exercise of its nuclear forces next year, one of the thousands of drills scheduled after the United States threatened to pull out of a key arms control treaty.
Addressing his ministry’s annual defense board meeting Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that over 18,000 exercises and training sessions were conducted in the past year and that new ones are being planned for 2019. These included the strategic command and staff drill called Center-2019 and the strategic forces Thunder exercise, both designed to test the country’s ability to unleash nuclear attacks, if necessary.
“The Strategic Nuclear Forces are maintained at a level that makes it possible to guarantee nuclear deterrence,” the ministry said in a readout of the meeting. “The task set out in 2017 to bring the Strategic Nuclear Forces to a level of 82 percent modernization has been completed.”
According to the ministry, Shoigu noted that “in contrast to the U.S. deployment of a global missile defense system, the armed forces are increasing their strike potential.” He touted the addition of new strategic carriers for air, land and sea, as well as the development of new nuclear-capable weapons such as the RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle and the Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched missile, which were “all guaranteed to overcome the most modern anti-missile systems.”
Both President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have sought to modernize their nuclear arsenals, the scopes of which have been limited by arms control agreements such as the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, itself a renewal of the earlier START signed between the U.S. and Soviet Union in 1991.
In 2014, however, Washington first accused Moscow of violating the INF through its development of the Novator 9M729 missile system, said to fall within the restricted 310- to 3,400-mile range for land-based nuclear and conventional weapons. Russia has denied this and instead charged the U.S. with breaking the agreement by installing defensive missile systems that could allegedly be used to attack as well.
The Trump administration announced in October that it intended to withdraw from the INF and has reportedly refused to begin negotiations on renewing the New START, which expires in 2021. Putin has vowed to respond by working to “restore balance” in the military sphere and warned during Tuesday’s Russian Defense Ministry meeting that a U.S. exit from the INF “will have the most negative consequences and will noticeably weaken regional and global security.”
“In fact, in the long term, we can talk about the degradation and even collapse of the entire architecture of arms control and the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” Putin said. “We will be forced to take additional measures to strengthen our security.”
With Russia’s new nuclear-capable weapons said to have demonstrated unprecedented capabilities, Putin added that he hoped those who “got accustomed to militaristic rhetoric” would now be made to “think.” The words echoed his previous speech in March, when—upon revealing his country’s new “super weapons”—he warned rivals who dismissed Russia as a world player that “you will listen to us now.”
Though the U.S. maintains a sizable lead over Russian military power, Putin has sought to close this gap by increasing his country’s strategic offensive prowess and by seeking closer regional relations with countries such as China, India and Pakistan. Russian senators have also reportedly considered easing the country’s nuclear doctrine in response to growing tensions with the Trump administration and its own nuclear vision.
Neither Russia nor the U.S. has agreed to maintain a “no-first-use” policy, and both countries reserve the right to use nuclear weapons pre-emptively.