Russia launches nuclear drills with Iskander, Kinzhal missiles near Ukraine

The drills are taking place in Russia’s Southern Military District, which borders occupied Ukrainian territories that Moscow has illegally annexed as well as other areas still controlled by Kyiv’s forces, according to the Russian Defence Ministry.

Russia announced Wednesday it has begun the first stage of exercises involving the simulated combat use of tactical nuclear weapons systems near its border with Ukraine.

The drills are taking place in Russia’s Southern Military District, which borders occupied Ukrainian territories that Moscow has illegally annexed as well as other areas still controlled by Kyiv’s forces, according to the Russian Defence Ministry.

Belarus, where Russia has said it plans to deploy tactical nuclear arms, is also expected to take part in the exercises at some point.

Two key Russian tactical missile systems – the road-mobile Iskander ballistic missile and the air-launched Kinzhal hypersonic missile – are being employed during the opening phase of the drills, Russian officials stated.

The ministry claimed the exercises are aimed at ensuring the readiness of Russian units and equipment for the combat use of non-strategic nuclear weapons to respond and unconditionally ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian state.

While the Russian government insisted the drills were strictly defensive in nature, they represent another alarming escalation of Moscow’s nuclear signalling and sabre-rattling behaviour since invading Ukraine last year.

Throughout the conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials have repeatedly made thinly veiled threats about potential nuclear strikes, sparking fears the war could take an apocalyptic turn.

Nuclear analysts assessed the latest announced exercises appeared squarely aimed at sending another stern warning to Ukraine’s Western backers against deepening their military support for Kyiv’s forces.

Wednesday’s announcement comes just days after the UK confirmed it would send Ukraine long-range Storm Shadow cruise missiles, crossing what Russia has claimed is a “red line” on Western arms transfers.

NATO and U.S. officials have routinely dismissed Russian nuclear threats as bluster. However, the latest sabre-rattling will likely only heighten concerns that the risk of a catastrophic miscalculation rises with each new escalation.

As the conflict in Ukraine drags towards its second year, all eyes will be closely watching the outcome of Russia’s tactical nuclear drills and whether they represent a further slide towards operational readiness of Moscow’s non-strategic nuclear forces.