Russia has just concluded a three-day (April 3-5) nuclear war drill in Siberia. The exercise, although it was planned months earlier, cannot have escaped the notice of the United States and Europe, the trans-Atlantic duo that has poisoned the Ukraine well, eliciting anger from Moscow and its allies. According to the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the three-day exercise involved 10,000 soldiers and 1,000 pieces of equipment from more than 30 units. The major purpose of the drill, according to the report, which cites multiple senior Russian military officers, is to ensure Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces have sufficient readiness to conduct offensive operations involving the massive and simultaneous use of nuclear missiles.
The Nezavisimaya Gazeta article also said there was no connection between the current nuclear exercise and the crisis in Ukraine. As evidence of this, it pointed out that in December of last year the commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces, Col. Gen. Sergei Karakaev, had said that his forces would conduct a large and complicated exercise sometime during 2014. From this, the Russian daily concluded that the drill had been planned for weeks and was completely unrelated to the tensions of Ukraine.
Notwithstanding what Gazeta article said, the timing of the drill is likely to cause great concern in Western capitals, particularly in Washington. The drill could very well have been intended to signal Russia’s resolve over events in Ukraine, where Russia has been at loggerheads with the West and the government in Kiev over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
As Russia’s conventional military capabilities have deteriorated following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has become increasingly reliant on operationalizing its nuclear arsenal. This has been reflected in successive Russian security documents. For example, Russia’s 1997 national security concept stated that Russia would use its nuclear arsenal in case of a threat to the existence of the Russian Federation, whether that threat came in the form of nuclear weapons or from a conventionally superior military power. This was pointed out recently by Zachary Keck, an analyst with the Tokyo-based web news daily, The Diplomat.