Why Russia’s Nuclear Drills in Crimea are Important


The Russian military has announced the initiation of tactical nuclear weapons exercises. The Southern Military District of Russia, headquartered in Rostov-on-Don, about 60 miles east of Ukraine, is spearheading these drills. This command is also responsible for operations in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula.

These nuclear exercises are primarily intended to intimidate the European Union and the United States from ramping up their support for Ukraine. Additionally, they aim to incite fear among U.S. voters regarding continued support for Ukraine, due to the potential risk of nuclear escalation. This aligns with Russia’s understanding that President Joe Biden is cautious about Russian threats and GOP presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump has implied he may reduce support for Ukraine if elected. These elements highlight why Russia’s exercises in Crimea will be closely watched.

According to Russia, the initial phase of its exercises will involve “obtaining special ammunition” for Iskander missile units. These units will then conduct a “secret deployment to the designated position area for preparation for rocket launches.” Although air-based exercises may also be included, the focus is on the Iskander system. This intermediate-range ballistic missile system, developed by Russia in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (with Russia also breaching other nonproliferation treaties in space, chemical, and biological weapons), has a potential range exceeding 1,200 miles.

This brings the spotlight back to Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin asserts that these exercises will remind Western leaders of his unwavering resolve to defend Russia’s claimed sovereign territory. Since Russia considers Crimea as its sovereign territory, conducting exercises there would bolster this argument. However, the missile ranges are also crucial.

Notably, if Iskander missiles are launched from positions within Russia’s Southern Military District, they could reach Romania and even Warsaw, Poland. If deployed in Crimea, the missiles could target Berlin, Rome, and Prague. Despite Russia’s claims that Iskander is a short-range system with a limited range of about 300 miles, NATO leaders are aware that this is untrue. Consequently, exercises conducted from Crimea would enhance the dramatic impact of these drills and likely raise concern in the West. The Russians are fully aware of this dynamic.

NATO’s response should be unwavering. The U.S. must further align itself with the determination of its U.K. and French NATO nuclear partners in facing Russian threats. Washington should also pressurize Germany to demonstrate more resolve, as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has so far succumbed to Putin’s intimidation tactics. Additionally, the U.S. and the EU should more publicly call out China’s Xi Jinping, who supports Russia while feigning efforts to dissuade Russia from these nuclear exercises.

Most critically, the U.S. and its nuclear-armed allies should clearly communicate that while they do not seek nuclear escalation, it would be Russia, not the West, which would face annihilation in the event of a nuclear war.

Tom Rogan
Tom Rogan
Tom Rogan is an editor and foreign policy writer. He writes frequently on security and intelligence issues involving Russia, China, and the Middle East. He holds a bachelor of arts in war studies from King's College London, a master of science in Middle East politics from SOAS, and a graduate diploma in law from the University of Law, London.

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