NATO and Russia conduct simultaneous nuclear exercises

November 2022
By Shannon Bugos

NATO launched its annual nuclear exercise, dubbed Steadfast Noon, in mid-October, and Russia launched its scheduled strategic nuclear exercises in Grom about a week later. The drills have raised tensions more than usual this year, as they came after Russia stepped up its brutal assault on Ukraine and again leveled threats to use nuclear weapons.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on October 11 dismissed the prospect of canceling Steadfast Noon’s “routine training”, saying it would send “a very bad signal”.

“If we now create the basis for any misunderstanding, miscalculation in Moscow about our willingness to protect and defend all allies, we would increase the risk of escalation,” Stoltenberg said.

Exercise Steadfast Noon involved 14 of 30 NATO members and up to 60 tactical nuclear fighter planes and surveillance aircraft in Europe, with Belgium’s Kleine Brogel airbase serving as the home base. US officials noted in a very rare disclosure that some B-52H strategic bombers from US Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota also took part.

The flights are intended to practice delivering US B61 nuclear gravity bombs, although the aircraft is flying unarmed. The exercise will include flights over Belgium, the United Kingdom and the North Sea. Prior to the exercise, Western officials stressed that Steadfast Noon would not feature a Ukraine-related scenario and would take place more than 600 miles from Russia. The NATO exercise lasted two weeks, starting October 17.

Exercise Grom, or Thunder, began on October 26. The last Russian exercise took place in February, less than a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, under the close supervision of Russian President Vladimir Putin. (See LAW, March 2022.) Russian exercises typically feature the deployment of strategic nuclear systems; launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as systems such as new hypersonic weapons; and large-scale military troop maneuvers.

A Western official told Reuters on October 13 that, with Grom occurring alongside the war in Ukraine, “we have an additional challenge to be really sure that the actions that we see, the things that happen, are in fact a exercise and nothing else.”

But US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on October 13 that the United States was aware that “Russian nuclear units are training intensively at this time of year”, even whether Russia “likely believes this exercise will help it project power.”

During the war, Putin made multiple threats to use nuclear weapons against any country deemed to be interfering in Ukraine and, more recently, to protect “the territorial integrity of our homeland…by all the systems we have”. (See LAWOctober 2022.)

After Russia’s claimed annexation of four Ukrainian regions in September, which was strongly condemned around the world as illegal, the Kremlin underlined that in its view, an attack in these regions amounts to an attack on Russia. This assertion gives rise to the possibility that Russia might consider using nuclear weapons against Ukraine if the Ukrainian military carries out an attack in these areas.

“All these territories are inalienable parts of the Russian Federation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on October 18. “Their security is ensured at the same level as [it is for] the rest of Russian territory.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov tried to downplay Putin’s threats on September 23, saying Moscow “is not threatening anyone with nuclear weapons.”

Yet a week later, Putin issued another nuclear threat. He argued that the United States had set a precedent for nuclear use with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, stating “we will defend our land with all the forces and resources at our disposal, and we will do everything we can to ensure the safety of our persons.”

CNN reported on September 28 that US officials have said the threat of Putin ordering the use of nuclear weapons is “higher” now than at any time since the start of the war.

Nevertheless, US and allied intelligence agencies that closely monitor Russian nuclear forces continue to believe that there is no indication of any imminent use of Russian nuclear weapons. The Pentagon has repeatedly stated that it sees no need to adjust the US strategic nuclear force posture.

Analysts have suggested that Russia may consider using nuclear weapons in a strike against a Ukrainian military installation or in a ‘demonstration’, such as detonating a nuclear weapon over the Black Sea or the Arctic Ocean.

US President Joe Biden stressed the seriousness with which the United States and its allies treat Putin’s numerous nuclear threats in his remarks on October 6. “We haven’t faced the prospect of Armageddon since [U.S. President John F.] Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis” in October 1962, Biden said. “We’re trying to figure out, what is Putin’s exit road?”

Biden later said he didn’t think Putin would ultimately call for the use of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

The United States and NATO declined to detail potential responses, whether diplomatic, military, economic or a combination, to Russian nuclear use.

“We communicated directly, privately, at very high levels in the Kremlin that any use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic consequences for Russia. [and] that the United States [and] our allies will respond decisively,” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on September 25. “We have been clear and specific about what this will entail.

Sullivan went on to stress that the Biden administration maintains its goal “to avoid direct conflict between the nuclear superpowers.”

French President Emmanuel Macron ruled out on October 13 the possibility of Paris ordering the use of its nuclear weapons in response to a Russian nuclear strike. France’s vital national security interests, on which its nuclear doctrine is based, “would not be at stake if there were a nuclear ballistic attack in Ukraine or in the region”, Macron said in an interview with the chain of France 2 television.

Despite the war and the rhetoric, the United States and Russia continue to exchange data on their respective nuclear arsenals, as required by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The most recent exchange took place on September 1, and the information was made public a month later.

According to the exchange, the United States has 1,420 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 659 delivery vehicles, and Russia has 1,549 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 540 delivery vehicles.

Treaty limits are 1,550 for warheads and 700 for delivery vehicles.

On-site inspections under New START remain suspended since Russia banned inspections of its nuclear weapons-related facilities in August. (See LAWSeptember 2022.)

Washington said in September that resuming on-site inspections was a prerequisite for the two countries to negotiate a new arms control agreement to replace New START, which expires in February 2026. (See LAWOctober 2022.)

A US State Department spokesperson said Arms control today on October 18 that “the United States is working with Russia to plan a session of the New START Bilateral Advisory Commission with the goal of resuming inspections.” The commission is the treaty’s implementing body, intended to serve as a forum in which to discuss concerns and issues that may arise as countries carry out treaty activities and procedures.

Martin E. Berry