Russia Rehearses Response to Nuclear Attack as Tensions Rise Over ‘Dirty Bomb’ Allegation

By Reuters
October 26, 2022Russia–Ukraine War
Russia Rehearses Response to Nuclear Attack as Tensions Rise Over ‘Dirty Bomb’ Allegation
Russian President Vladimir Putin observes exercises held by Russia's strategic nuclear forces, as he takes part in a video link in Moscow on Oct. 26, 2022. (Alexei Babushkin/Sputnik/Kremlin via Reuters)

FRONT LINES NORTH OF KHERSON, Ukraine—Russia rehearsed its response to a nuclear attack on Wednesday in an exercise involving nuclear submarines, strategic bombers, and ballistic missiles at a time when tensions are high over a “dirty bomb” allegation it has made against Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin remotely observed the annual exercise, called “Grom” or “Thunder,” which uses test launches to put Moscow’s nuclear forces through their paces in a show of force designed to deter and intimidate foes.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin the exercises had practiced “delivering a massive nuclear strike by strategic offensive forces in response to an enemy nuclear strike.”

Test launches of nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles from land and sea, and cruise missiles fired from the air by TU-95MS strategic bombers, had passed off successfully, Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov added.

Putin later told a meeting of intelligence officials from ex-Soviet countries that the potential for conflict in the world remained high.

“There are new risks and challenges for our collective security,” he said.

nuke- submarine
What is said to be Russia’s strategic nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine Tula during exercises held by strategic nuclear forces at an unknown location, in this image taken from handout footage released on Oct. 26, 2022. (Russian Defense Ministry/Handout via Reuters)

The Pentagon said a day earlier that Russia had notified it of its intention to carry out the exercises at a time when NATO is rehearsing its own use of U.S. nuclear bombs based in Europe in its annual “Steadfast Noon” war games.

Washington said the notification lowered the risk of miscalculation at a time of “reckless” Russian nuclear rhetoric, while Western officials have expressed confidence in their ability to discern the difference between a Russian drill and preparations for a real nuclear strike.

The nuclear muscle flexing is sensitive however, because Russia is on the back foot in Ukraine and has accused Ukraine of planning to detonate a “dirty bomb” laced with radioactive material, an allegation Putin repeated on Wednesday.

Kyiv and the West say there is no evidence for the charge and that the warning looks designed to escalate tension around the war in Ukraine or to serve as the justification for some kind of Russian battlefield escalation.

Trench Warfare

On the ground in Ukraine, the Russian defense ministry said its forces had repelled attempted Ukrainian advances in the south and the east.

Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, said wet weather and the nature of the terrain was making Kyiv’s counter-offensive in its southern Kherson region harder than it was in the northeast, where it pushed Russia back last month.

Reznikov, who said he did not believe Putin would use nuclear weapons, told media Russian forces were using water supply channels as trenches in Kherson, an agricultural province north of Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

Ukrainian troops manning a section of frontline north of Kherson said that far from getting ready to retreat, the Russians in their sector were reinforcing their lines around the provincial capital.

“In the press they say the Russians are afraid and will withdraw their troops, but that is not true,” said the unit’s commander, who asked to be quoted by his nickname, Nikifor.

“They are fighting well and hitting our troops.

“In this area, they are very active. They shell every day and are digging trenches and preparing for defense,” said Nikifor, whose location in Mykolaiv province could not be identified under Ukrainian military regulations.

“They use artillery and tanks,” he continued, sitting in his command post in a semi-abandoned village.

Ukrainian officers said that radio intercepts showed that newly mobilized Russian conscripts were being deployed opposite their lines and said there has been an uptick in Russian shellfire recently after a noticeable drop earlier this month.

The unit holds a network of well fortified trenches dug into tree lines opposite the Russian fortifications, and recent rains have turned the dirt tracks that access them to mud, especially where tank treads have churned them up.

Intermittent artillery fire echoed from both sides, with towers of smoke rising in the distance.

At one point, a Ukrainian helicopter gunship flew swept low over the fields, loosed rockets at the Russian positions and wheeled around spitting flares to distract any heat-seeking anti-aircraft rockets fired at it.

Nuclear Fears

Western officials have expressed fears that Moscow may be tempted to use a low-yield “tactical” nuclear weapon in Ukraine to try to force Kyiv to capitulate at a time when the Ukrainian pressure on the Russian forces around Kherson threatens a major defeat for Moscow.

U.S. President Joe Biden warned Russia on Tuesday that such a move would be an “incredibly serious mistake.”

Putin, who also chaired a Security Council meeting on Wednesday, has said that Russia has the right to defend its territory using any weapons in its arsenal, which includes the world’s largest nuclear stockpile, but has not specifically spoken of tactical nuclear weapons.

Russian officials have said that Moscow’s protective nuclear umbrella has been extended to cover four Ukrainian regions Putin says he has annexed, a move not recognized by Kyiv or the West.

A day after Russia aired its “dirty bomb” allegations at the U.N. Security Council, Shoigu briefed his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe by video to convey Moscow’s concern.

A close Putin ally, Shoigu held a similar video conference with his Indian counterpart.

Rajnath Singh, India’s Defense Minister, told Shoigu that nuclear weapons should not be used by any side.

Singh called for an early resolution to the conflict through diplomacy, a prospect which, for now, seems remote after eight months of war.

There was no immediate readout from Beijing on what Wei Fenghe told Shoigu.

By Jonathan Landay

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