The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s annual nuclear exercises will begin on Oct. 17, the alliance said Friday, as fears mount of nuclear conflict breaking out over Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The drills, dubbed Steadfast Noon, will involve 14 countries and see advanced fighter jets and B-52 bombers from Minot Air Base in North Dakota simulate the deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe, NATO said in a statement. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed Tuesday the drills would take place as they do every year despite heightened tensions with Russia, which has threatened nuclear weapons use in Ukraine, Reuters reported.
Canceling the drills would send the “very wrong signal” to Russia that the alliance was not prepared to defend member states in the face of Russian aggression, Stoltenberg said, adding that the exercises were planned long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
“Now is the right time to be firm and to be clear that NATO is there to protect and defend all Allies,” he said. A demonstration of “NATO’s firm, predictable behavior, our military strength, is the best way to prevent escalation.
“This exercise helps ensure that the Alliance’s nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure and effective,” NATO Spokesperson Oana Lungescu said in a statement.
NATO claimed the current fears of nuclear conflict, heightened in recent weeks, did not prompt the move to conduct Steadfast Noon. Nevertheless, the drills could coincide with Moscow’s own “Grom” nuclear weapons drills, which typically occur near the end of October, Reuters reported.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to use tactical or strategic nuclear weapons in Ukraine as his army faces severe losses, Reuters reported.
The Grom exercises could blur the lines between standard military procedures and an actual deployment of weapons of mass destruction.
“We do have an additional challenge to really be sure that the actions that we see, the things that are occurring, are actually an exercise and not something else,” a western official told Reuters.
NATO in turn promised “severe consequences” should Putin order low-yield weapons use in Ukraine, calling the threats from Moscow “dangerous and reckless.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy entreated for the organization, which structures itself as a defense alliance focused on deterrence rather than aggression, to launch preemptive strikes against Russia on Oct. 6.
Only preventative strikes from NATO would “exclude the possibility of use of nuclear weapons by Russia,” Zelenskyy said, according to Meduza.
Steadfast Noon will run from Oct. 17 to Oct. 30 in Belgium and involve over 60 aircraft, according to NATO. No live weapons will be used.
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