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Russia is practicing nuclear drills near the border with Ukraine

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Russia's military has started tactical nuclear weapons drills.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Video released by the Ministry of Defense showed crews preparing launch systems and readying a bomber to carry a nuclear warhead. President Vladimir Putin ordered the maneuvers earlier this month, in response to what the Kremlin says are growing threats from the West amid the war in Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: Joining us to talk about all this is NPR's Charles Maynes, on the line from Moscow. Charles, tell us more about these drills.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah, sure, A. You know, Russia's Defense Ministry says these were its initial phase of drills. They're intended to test nonstrategic nuclear weapons and protect the homeland, so we're talking about less powerful, but still very deadly nukes that could be used, in theory, in a war zone, on a battlefield. Now, the Kremlin has quite clearly linked these exercises to recent comments from Western officials - particularly senior French and British officials - that suggested a potentially deeper role for their countries in defense of Ukraine, perhaps even targeting sites inside Russia itself. According to Dmitry Stefanovich of the Center for International Security at the Primakov Institute here in Moscow, this was Russia firmly responding, saying, don't.

DMITRY STEFANOVICH: On the Russian side, it is also a demonstration that there are tools that can match escalation at any level. Like, it's not only no conflict at all or massive nuclear exchange.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so it sounds calculated by the Kremlin. How much of it, though, is actual escalation?

MAYNES: Well, you know, on the one hand, of course it is escalation, in the sense we haven't seen this before amid the war in Ukraine, so it feels more visceral, more possible. Yet Andrey Baklitskiy, of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, argues these exercises appear to be signaling for now.

ANDREY BAKLITSKIY: The good thing is that there is currently not, like, a huge uptick of changes on the battlefield, and I don't think anybody currently is thinking that this has anything to do with actual use. This is signal, right?

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so that reminds me of that Cold War-era term, deterrence, but it does come against a backdrop of growing nuclear tensions that have really been made worse by the war in Ukraine.

MAYNES: Yeah, it does, and if we think back to the beginning of the war in 2022, Putin - President Vladimir Putin - placed Russia's strategic weapons on special alert and repeatedly reminded the world of Russia's massive nuclear arsenal. I don't think anyone has any illusions as to why Putin wants the West to think twice about its support for Ukraine and keep guessing at where the Kremlin's red lines are, but this also comes against the backdrop of collapsing Cold War-era nuclear agreements between the U.S. and Russia, a process that's been long underway. It started under the Bush W. White House and continued under the Trump administration. In fact, the New START Treaty, which caps warheads at 1,550 apiece, is the only landmark nuclear agreement that's left, and it's barely hanging on. Putin suspended Russia's participation in February of last year, citing U.S. military support for Ukraine, and the agreement is set to expire in 2026.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Charles, has everything we have just talked about raised concerns of a new arms race?

MAYNES: Well, Russia says it's abiding by New START's limits voluntarily for now, but there are concerns of a new arms race, and increasingly on new frontiers like space. You know, the Pentagon, for example, accuses Moscow of launching some kind of nuclear antisatellite weapon. Russia denies the charge. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Russia have been butting heads at the U.N. over rival proposals to ban weapons in space, but all that underscores, once again, the dangers of this crumbling nuclear security infrastructure and the spiraling lack of trust that comes with it, all of which is exacerbated by events in Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you very much.

MAYNES: Hey, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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