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ISW: Russia rattles nuclear weapons to sway Western policy

The Kremlin is timing its nuclear saber-rattling to coincide with major policy discussions in the West, in a bid to influence Western decision-makers, according to a report by the Institute for the Study of War.
russian nuclear weapon
RT-2PM Topol. Credit: Militarnyi
ISW: Russia rattles nuclear weapons to sway Western policy

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported on 21 that “the Kremlin continues to time its nuclear saber-rattling to coincide with major policy discussions in the West as part of a Kremlin reflexive control campaign to influence Western decision-makers.”

The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed on 21 May that missile elements of the Southern Military District began exercises with non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons, involving Iskander ballistic missiles and Kinzhal aeroballistic missiles.

ISW cites a Kremlin-awarded milblogger who explicitly tied these Russian tactical nuclear weapons exercises to efforts to influence Western decision-making, particularly regarding restrictions on Ukraine’s use of Western-provided weapons to strike military targets in Russia.

ISW assesses that “Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons tests are part of a Kremlin reflexive control campaign that often uses nuclear saber-rattling to influence Western decision-makers to engage in self-deterrence.”

The report explains that reflexive control is a key element of Russia’s hybrid warfare toolkit, relying on shaping an adversary’s decisions through targeted rhetoric and information operations.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in the New York Times on 20 May that Russia currently enjoys a sanctuary in Russian territory from which it can conduct missile strikes against Ukraine and launch offensive operations.

According to ISW, US and Western policies limiting Ukraine’s ability to strike military targets in Russia are “severely compromising Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against current Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast or any area along the international border where Russian forces may choose to conduct offensive operations in the future.”

Other key takeaways from the report:

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy indicated that the limited Russian offensive in northern Ukraine is achieving its goal of drawing attention away from intense Russian offensive operations in eastern Ukraine.
  • Satellite imagery indicates that Ukrainian forces likely damaged the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s (BSF) Tsyklon small missile ship in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea, on 19 May.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Vovchansk, Kreminna, Chasiv Yar, and Donetsk City.
  • Russian authorities continue to illegally and forcibly deport Ukrainian citizens, including children, to Russia and to forcibly remove Ukrainian citizens deeper into occupied Ukraine.

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