Russia on Wednesday conducted its first major nuclear drills since the start of its war on Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin made unfounded claims that Kyiv was seeking to develop a “dirty bomb”, as Moscow continued to ramp up the rhetoric over possible nuclear use in the conflict.
Putin monitored events via videoconference from the Kremlin as Russia’s military practised what his defence minister Sergei Shoigu called a “mass nuclear strike with strategic attack forces in response to a nuclear attack by our adversary”.
Addressing security services chiefs from a group of former Soviet countries after the drills, Putin said “global geopolitical confrontation has sharply increased” and accused the US of using Ukraine as a “battering ram” against Russia.
He repeated evidence-free claims that the US had “turned Ukraine into a test site for military biological experiments”, complained the west was “pumping it up with weapons, including heavy ones”, and turning a blind eye to “provocations” using a dirty bomb, a conventional explosive that carries radioactive material.
Ukraine has vehemently denied the claims and said the Kremlin was hoping that the spectre of nuclear war would pressure Ukraine’s western backers to accept a peace deal on Russia’s terms.
Wednesday’s drills tested the three parts of Russia’s nuclear capabilities: the RS-24 Yars intercontinental ballistic missile, the missile-carrying K-114 Tula submarine, and two Tu-95 long-range strategic nuclear bombers.
The exercises come amid heightened Russian nuclear rhetoric that western countries fear is an ominous attempt to fabricate a pretext to escalate Putin’s faltering eight-month invasion of Ukraine.
Washington has not said that it detected a change in Russia’s nuclear posture ahead of the annual exercises, which Moscow warned the US about in advance.
But as Ukraine’s counter-offensive continues to inflict a series of humiliating setbacks on Russia’s military, Putin has dialled up his rhetoric around nuclear weapons.
Russia held the previous exercise in February just days before Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine and warned the west of “consequences you have never encountered in your history” if it tried to stop him.
Last month, he said Russia would use “all the means at our disposal” to defend itself after annexing four regions of Ukraine and warned the US had “created a precedent” when it bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the second world war.
Since then, Ukraine has continued to claw back territory Putin had only just claimed as part of Russia and closed in on Kherson, the only regional capital Russia has captured throughout the war.
The drills followed calls by Shoigu to his counterparts in China and India, where he repeated Moscow’s unfounded claims that Ukraine is planning to detonate a “dirty bomb”.
These calls followed similar warnings he made over the weekend to the defence ministers of the US, UK and France — Nato’s three nuclear powers — as well as Turkey, which does not have nuclear weapons but has sought to carve out a role as a mediator in the war.
Ukraine believes Putin has not abandoned his goal to essentially destroy the country in its current form and that he was not prepared to negotiate with Kyiv in good faith.
Russia has left swaths of Ukraine without power after stepping up air strikes on the country’s critical infrastructure facilities such as power plants.
Kyiv had pleaded for help to combat Russia’s onslaught from cruise missiles, air strikes and Iranian-made drones. Ukraine is set to receive its first batch of Nasams air defence systems from the US, the most sophisticated air defence system provided to Ukraine so far, according to manufacturer Raytheon.