NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says Russia would be crossing a “very important line” if it used nuclear weapons in Ukraine
By LORNE COOK Associated Press
BRUSSELS — Russian President Vladimir Putin would be crossing a “very important line” if he were to order the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Thursday, as both the military alliance and Russia are due to hold nuclear exercises in the next few days.
NATO is holding its exercise, dubbed “Steadfast Noon,” next week. The long-planned maneuvers are conducted around the same time every year and run for about one week. They involve fighter jets capable of carrying nuclear warheads, but do not involve any live bombs.
Russia usually holds its own maneuvers around the same time, and NATO is expecting Moscow’s exercise of its nuclear forces sometime this month. Stoltenberg said NATO will “closely monitor” what Russia is up to.
Asked what NATO would do if Russia launched a nuclear attack, Stoltenberg said: “We will not go into exactly how we will respond, but of course this will fundamentally change the nature of the conflict. It will mean that a very important line has been crossed.”
He added that “even any use of a smaller nuclear weapon will be a very serious thing, fundamentally changing the nature of the war in Ukraine, and of course that would have consequences.”
Stoltenberg’s remarks came after a meeting of NATO’s secretive Nuclear Planning Group, which was held among defense ministers in Brussels, as concerns deepen over Putin’s insistence that he will use any means necessary to defend Russian territory.
The meeting, which usually happens once or twice a year, comes amid high tension as some NATO allies, led by the U.S., supply Ukraine with advanced weapons and munitions to defend itself against Russian aerial attacks.
“Irresponsible and reckless rhetoric is dangerous,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said of Russian threats to potentially use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. However the U.S. has not seen the need to make any changes to its current military posture or response, Austin said.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also warned Putin not to cross that threshold. “Any nuclear attack against Ukraine will create an answer, not a nuclear answer but such a powerful answer from the military side that the Russian Army will be annihilated,” he said in a speech in Bruges, Belgium.
NATO is keeping a wary eye on Russia’s movements in its war with Ukraine, but has so far seen no change in its nuclear posture. Putin’s nuclear exercises though could make it more difficult for NATO to understand what Russia’s intentions might be, potentially increasing the risk of an accident.
“Russia will also be conducting its annual exercise, I think, the week after or just after the annual exercise,” U.K. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told reporters Wednesday. But “what we don’t want is to do things out of routine.”
“This is a routine exercise and it’s all about readiness,” Wallace said, just as “NATO’s meeting is all about making sure we are ready for anything. I mean, that is the job of this alliance — to make sure that the 30 partners together are ready for what is thrown at us. And we have to continue to work at that.”
“Steadfast Noon,” which was conceived before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, will involve 14 NATO members. The majority of the exercises will take place over 1,000 kilometers (625 miles) away from Russia.
The NATO organization as a whole lacks any weapons. The United States, the United Kingdom, and France continue to have complete control over the nuclear weapons that are ostensibly associated with the alliance. France, however, is adamant about preserving its nuclear autonomy and refuses to attend meetings of the Nuclear Planning Group.
In response to Ukrainian forces using Western weapons and forcing the Russian army to retreat in some areas, Putin raised the stakes by annexing four Ukrainian regions and ordering a partial mobilization to shore up the eroding front line.
Putin has repeatedly hinted that he might use nuclear weapons to defend Russian gains as his war plans have gone awry. Additionally, the threat is intended to deter NATO members from supplying Ukraine with more advanced weapons.
French President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview with France 2 television that France wouldn’t retaliate with a nuclear attack. He also stated that he has spoken to Putin “several times” and issued a warning regarding the obligations of leaders in terms of nuclear rhetoric.
We have a clear nuclear doctrine, according to Macron. “The deterrent is effective. However, we become more credible the less we discuss it and the less we make a threat.
“Too many people are talking about it,” he said.
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