NATO’s secretary general warned on Wednesday that Russia’s nuclear saber rattling threatens to further destabilize Europe.
Jens Stoltenberg said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the Russian government’s recent rhetoric and its operations involving its nuclear forces were "deeply troubling." While the Kremlin has continued to support separatists in eastern Ukraine, it has also claimed the right to deploy nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe and has escalated flights of its nuclear-capable bombers.
"Russia’s nuclear saber rattling is unjustified, destabilizing, and dangerous," Stoltenberg said.
Multiple Russian officials have said their government is not prohibited from placing nuclear arms in the Crimean Peninsula, which the Kremlin forcibly annexed in March 2014. Critics say that such a deployment would violate the Budapest Memorandums of 1994—signed by Russia—that provided security assurances to Ukraine in exchange for the removal of its nuclear weapons.
In a Kremlin-sponsored documentary released in March, President Vladimir Putin said Russian forces were prepared to use nuclear weapons last year in Crimea if necessary, though he added that "I don't think this was actually anyone's wish." Russia sent unmarked soldiers into Crimea last March before holding a referendum for annexation that was widely condemned as illegal.
"We were ready to do it," Putin said in the documentary concerning the potential use of nuclear arms in Crimea. "I talked with colleagues and told them that this (Crimea) is our historic territory, Russian people live there, they are in danger, we cannot leave them."
Additionally, Russia has temporarily stationed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in its Kaliningrad territory on multiple occasions. Kaliningrad borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania and could represent a key strategic asset for Putin in a nuclear standoff.
Permanent deployment of nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad and Crimea by Russia would "fundamentally change the balance of security in Europe," Stoltenberg said.
Russian forces have also increased their intrusions into other countries’ air defense zones with nuclear-capable bombers. Two Russian Tu-95 Bear H bombers entered the zone near Alaska in April, which followed several Russian intrusions into U.S. air defense zones last year.
The Kremlin continues to provide "training, weapons, and forces" to separatists in the Ukrainian conflict that has claimed more than 6,000 lives, Stoltenberg said.
While he said he supports efforts by the United States and European powers to find a political solution to the Ukraine crisis, he declined to address the Ukrainian army’s request for lethal arms to counter the Russian-backed separatists. He noted that Russia still has large numbers of troops stationed near the Ukrainian border with heavy weaponry and vehicles.
The Obama administration has permitted U.S. troops to train Ukrainian forces but has so far rejected the latter’s requests for weaponry such as anti-tank missiles. A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers who support arming Ukraine say the weapons could help turn domestic opinion against Putin, who has been reported to have turned to using mobile crematoriums to conceal Russian casualties in Ukraine.
NATO has doubled the size of its spearhead contingency force that could respond to security threats in 48 hours, Stoltenberg said.
He said Russia’s recent statements regarding its nuclear forces and its support for the Ukrainian separatists were "not random events."
"Russia is a global actor that is asserting its military power, stirring up aggressive nationalism, claiming the right to impose its will on its neighbors, and grabbing land," Stoltenberg added. "When might becomes right, the consequences are grave."