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The backstory: As the war in Ukraine continues to unfold, Russia’s nuclear capabilities have become a source of international tension. Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, with over 5,800 nuclear weapons, according to the Federation of American Scientists. The US follows close behind with around 5,200. The US says that there’s no sign at the moment that Russia plans to start attacking Ukraine with these weapons. But, some Western officials are afraid that if Ukraine recaptures Crimea, nuclear war could be on the table.
More recently: This summer, Russia began moving tactical nuclear weapons into neighboring ally Belarus. Russian President Putin said the weapons wouldn’t be used unless Russia was threatened. Earlier this month, Putin said that Russia held the "final successful test" of a newer nuclear-powered cruise missile that has an alleged potentially unlimited distance range.
On Wednesday, Russia’s upper Parliament voted to withdraw the country’s ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans "any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion" across the world. Putin justified this shift by pointing out that the US had signed but never ratified the CTBT. There’s some concern that this means Russia will resume full nuclear testing, but the Russian government has said that it won’t do that unless the US does first.
The development: Late Wednesday, the Kremlin announced that Russia’s strategic nuclear forces conducted drills. President Vladimir Putin oversaw the exercises, which reportedly involved firing ballistic and cruise missiles over land, sea and air. The missiles were launched from a land-based silo, a nuclear submarine and a long-range bomber aircraft. Russia’s Defense Ministry released the testing footage. These tests are supposed to explore Russia’s ability to retaliate in case of a nuclear attack on the country, but it’s also being seen as a show of power toward its adversaries.
"Practical launches of ballistic and cruise missiles took place during the training," the Kremlin said in a statement.
"[T]raining is being conducted to control the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, during which the tasks of delivering a massive nuclear strike by strategic offensive forces in response to an enemy nuclear strike will be worked out,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
“Given that Russia is accusing the US of making preparations for noncompliant nuclear test explosions and that the US has accused Russia of being in noncompliance, both should engage in discussions that enable confidence building measures,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
"I'm pretty sure that had Russia wanted to go full out and test a nuclear device, it would have left the treaty [completely]," said Andrey Baklitskiy, a senior researcher at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, Switzerland.