Russia’s President Vladimir Putin oversaw military manoeuvres by strategic nuclear missile forces as the worst crisis since the Cold War grips Europe.
The Kremlin said on Saturday that Russia successfully test-launched hypersonic and cruise missiles at sea and land-based targets during the exercises.
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Putin sat observing the war games on screens along with the president of neighbouring Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, from what the Kremlin described as a “situation centre”.
“All the missiles hit their targets, confirming their performance objectives,” the Kremlin said, adding the drills included Tu-95 bombers and submarines.
The Russian leader reportedly ordered the drills to begin. Earlier, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made a reference to nuclear launch codes.
“Such test launches, of course, are impossible without the head of state. You know about the famous black suitcase and the red button,” Peskov said.
‘Accident or a mistake’
Two ballistic missiles were launched – one from a site in northwest Russia and the second from a submarine in the Barents Sea – hitting targets thousands of kilometres away in the far east peninsula of Kamchatka, the Kremlin said.
Russia’s RIA news agency aired footage showing a split screen of various top senior military chiefs, as well as Putin, who ordered the drills to begin.
The Kremlin has said the exercises are part of a regular training process and denied they signal an escalation in the standoff.
US defence chief Lloyd Austin said the nuclear exercises were stoking concern among leaders around the world given that Russia’s military was focused on a massive buildup of forces around Ukraine.
“When you layer on top of that a very sophisticated exercise with strategic nuclear forces that makes things complicated to the degree that you could have an accident or a mistake,” he said.
The drills follow a huge series of manoeuvres by Russia’s armed forces in the past four months that have included a buildup of troops – estimated by the West to number 150,000 or more – to the north, east and south of Ukraine.
Putin and other top officials frequently refer to the fact that Russia, together with the United States, is one of the world’s leading nuclear powers.
In the footage aired by RIA, Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov told Putin, “The main purpose of the exercise is to train the strategic offensive forces’ actions aimed at delivering a guaranteed defeat of the enemy.”
Moscow-based analysts said the exercises were aimed at sending a message to take Russia’s demands for security guarantees from NATO seriously after the alliance’s expansion to Russia’s borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
“The signal to the West is not so much ‘don’t interfere’, but instead designed to say that the problem is not Ukraine and actually much wider,” Dmitry Stefanovich, a research fellow at the IMEMO RAS think-tank, told the Reuters news agency.
US President Joe Biden said Friday he was sure Putin had made the call to invade, regardless of warnings it would trigger major Western sanctions, and the attack could come in the next days with targets that would include the capital Kyiv.
Ukraine’s armed forces accused the rebels of a new wave of attacks on Saturday, saying there had been dozens of exchanges of fire by 7:00am (04:00 GMT) with one soldier dying from shrapnel wounds.
The soldier, a captain in an intelligence unit, was the fourth Ukrainian soldier to die in the first seven weeks of this year. At least 66 were killed in 2021, according to official sources.
The rebels, who also accused Ukrainian forces of new attacks on Saturday, declared general mobilisations in the two regions, calling up men to fight even as they announced mass evacuations of women and children into Russia.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Saturday that Russia knew the alliance could not meet its demands, which include the withdrawal of NATO forces from former communist Eastern European states that have elected to join NATO.
New helicopters and a battle group deployment of tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and support equipment have been deployed in Russia near the border, according to US-based Maxar Technologies, which tracks developments with satellite imagery.
The Kremlin also has tens of thousands of troops staging exercises in Belarus, north of Ukraine, that are due to end on Sunday. Lukashenko said on Friday they could stay as long as needed.