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Putin orders nuclear drills in response to Macron ‘threats’

Vladimir Putin has ordered Russia’s military to rehearse the use of so-called tactical nuclear weapons in combat, casting the drills as a response to “threats” from French President Emmanuel Macron.

The exercises are the Russian president’s latest salvo in a stand-off with the west over his invasion of Ukraine, during which Putin has repeatedly made veiled threats to use nuclear weapons.

Russia said the drills, which cover non-strategic nuclear weapons that can be used in battlefield situations, were a response to “provocative statements” from western officials including Macron.

The French president last week reaffirmed that he was leaving open the possibility of sending western troops to Ukraine, as he warned of the threat Russia’s invasion poses to Europe.

The Kremlin also signalled its ire with the US Senate, which passed a long-delayed $61bn aid package for Kyiv last month, as well as the UK, whose top diplomat Lord David Cameron said last week that Ukraine could use British-supplied weapons against targets inside Russia.

“They were talking about being prepared and even intending to send armed deployments to Ukraine, which is essentially putting Nato soldiers against the Russian military,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told reporters on Monday.

“This is a totally new level of escalating tensions. It is unprecedented, it demands special attention and special measures,” Peskov said.

The Kremlin has sought to deter western powers from intervening more directly in the grinding two-year war in Ukraine, where Russia’s forces have gained the upper hand against Kyiv’s outmanned, outgunned army.

Dmitry Medvedev, a former stand-in president for Putin, said Russia “would have to respond” if western countries sent troops to Ukraine, prompting a “global catastrophe”.

The exercises mark a return to nuclear sabre-rattling for Putin ahead of his inauguration for a fifth presidential term on Tuesday, when he will extend his quarter-century rule until at least 2030. It came as Macron hosted China’s Xi Jinping in Paris, who European leaders have urged to use his influence over Putin to encourage restraint on nuclear issues.

Russia’s defence ministry said the drills would test whether units were fully prepared to use non-strategic nuclear weapons — such as short-range missiles or torpedoes — “to respond and in order to unconditionally ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian state”.

Rocket and aviation forces of Russia’s southern military district, as well as naval units, would hold the exercises “soon”, the ministry said, without providing any further details.

Though Russia regularly stages nuclear exercises, holding them as an explicit response to the west is highly unusual, according to William Alberque, former director of Nato’s Arms Control, Disarmament, and Nonproliferation Centre.

“My impression is that this is a clear attempt to use nuclear coercion against Macron himself for his recent statements on Ukraine and Russia. We are certainly embarking on unknown territory in terms of nuclear signalling,” Alberque said.

The Kremlin has repeatedly voiced its dissatisfaction with Macron’s hawkish stance since he first floated sending western troops to Ukraine in February, with Moscow claiming such a move would make a direct conflict between Russia and Nato inevitable.

Dmitry Kiselyov, the presenter of Russia’s flagship state television news programme, hosted a segment late last month called ‘We will use it!’, in which he assured viewers Moscow was prepared to fire nuclear weapons in such a scenario.

“If Nato countries deploy their forces to Ukraine in order to deal a strategic defeat to Russia, then [ . . . ] we’ll send everything flying everywhere!” Kiselyov said, standing in front of a montage of nuclear-capable missile launches.

Eduard Hulicius, deputy foreign minister of the Czech Republic, told the Financial Times that Russia had also issued warnings it could use nuclear weapons in February and March.

“They are trying to intimidate western populations and Ukraine. They are trying to show their own population they are strong,” he said. “We should not be intimidated.”

Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, said Moscow’s talk of western provocation was “false information” and part of a “hybrid activity” to sap the will of countries backing Kyiv.

The exercises rehearse using Russia’s non-strategic nuclear arsenal. Though they carry a smaller payload than intercontinental nuclear weapons targeting the US, the warheads can still release significantly more energy than the weapons dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945.

Russia’s threshold for using tactical nuclear weapons is lower than the Kremlin has ever publicly admitted, according to leaked training documents seen by the FT.

They include an enemy landing on Russian territory, the defeat of units responsible for securing border areas, or an imminent enemy attack using conventional weapons.

Ukraine and its western allies have been concerned about a potential Russian nuclear strike since Putin hinted at one while announcing the invasion in 2022, then vowed to “use all the means at our disposal” to defend his conquests in Ukraine later that year.

The US, UK and France, Nato’s three nuclear powers, warned Russia they could respond to a nuclear strike in Ukraine with conventional weapons, while Xi warned Putin against using nuclear weapons, according to western and Chinese officials.

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