NATO head Jens Stoltenberg says the Western military alliance will go ahead as planned with its annual routine nuclear deterrent exercises, scheduled to be held next week amid rising tensions with Russia over the war in Ukraine.
The drills, dubbed “Steadfast Noon”, are held annually and usually run for about one week. They involve fighter jets capable of carrying nuclear warheads, but do not involve any live bombs. Conventional jets along with surveillance and refueling aircraft also routinely take part.
Fourteen of the 30 NATO member countries join in the exercise, which was planned before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
The main part of the manoeuvres would be held more than 1,000km (625 miles) from Russia, said an official from NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“It would send a very wrong signal if we suddenly now cancelled a routine, long-time planned exercise because of the war in Ukraine. That would be absolutely the wrong signal to send,” Stoltenberg told reporters on the eve of a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels.
“NATO’s firm, predictable behaviour, our military strength, is the best way to prevent escalation,” he said.
“If we now created the grounds for any misunderstandings, miscalculations in Moscow about our willingness to protect and defend all allies, we would increase the risk of escalation,” added Stoltenberg.
With Russian forces retreating under the blows of Ukrainian troops armed with Western weapons, Russian President Vladimir Putin has raised the stakes in the conflict in recent weeks by annexing four Ukrainian regions and declaring a partial mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of reservists to buttress the crumbling front line.
Putin has repeatedly signalled he could use nuclear weapons to defend his country. On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow would only resort to that if the Russian state faced imminent destruction. Speaking on state TV, he accused the West of encouraging false speculation about the Kremlin’s intentions.
Russia’s nuclear doctrine envisions “exclusively retaliatory measures intended to prevent the destruction of the Russian Federation as a result of direct nuclear strikes or the use of other weapons that raise the threat for the very existence of the Russian state”, Lavrov said.
NATO as an organisation does not possess any weapons. The nuclear weapons nominally linked to NATO remain under the firm control of three member countries: the United States, United Kingdom and France. The alliance’s secretive Nuclear Planning Group will meet on Thursday.
Stoltenberg described Putin’s nuclear comments as “dangerous and reckless” and underlined that the allies “have also conveyed clearly to Russia that it will have severe consequences if they use nuclear weapons in any way”.
“We are closely monitoring Russia’s nuclear forces,” Stoltenberg said. “We have not seen any changes in Russia’s posture, but we remain vigilant.”