(CNSNews.com) – The Department of Defense on Thursday reiterated that it remains confident in its current nuclear posture, after its counterpart in Moscow reported drills simulating launches of nuclear-capable missiles in Russian territory close to current – and prospective – NATO allies.
“We monitor this every single day,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said during a briefing. “We are comfortable and confident that our strategic deterrent posture is well placed and robust enough to defend the homeland, as well as our allies and partners.”
Underlining a point that U.S. administration officials have made a number of times over recent months, Kirby described Russian rhetoric and actions regarding the use of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war as unhelpful and irresponsible.
“It is uniformly unhelpful and irresponsible for – for the Russians to regard and speak to, boast about, their nuclear weaponry,” he said.
“There’s no reason to bring it to that level,” Kirby said. “I think we can all agree that the specter of a nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia is good for no one, certainly not good for Russia, it’s not good for us, and it’s not good for Ukraine or – or the region.”
Russia’s defense ministry said in a statement that war games held in Kaliningrad on Wednesday had practiced single and multiple strikes by Iskander ballistic missiles against airbases, infrastructure, and military command posts.
The drills had also dealt with “actions in conditions of radiation and chemical contamination,” it said.
“It’s obviously concerning,” Kirby said of the exercises. “This is not the behavior of a responsible nuclear power, particularly given what’s going on in Ukraine right now, and the focus of the international community on what’s going on in Ukraine right now.”
Kaliningrad is the westernmost piece of Russian territory, an exclave a little larger in area than Connecticut, located between the Baltic Sea, Poland, and Lithuania.
The Iskander (SS-26) is a nuclear-capable, mobile-launched ballistic missile. Its reported range of up to 250 miles means that an Iskander launched from Kaliningrad could potentially reach targets in Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, as well as southern Sweden and much of the Baltic Sea.
After threatening to do so for years in response to NATO enlargement and U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe, the Kremlin began stationing Iskanders in Kaliningrad in 2016.
“Russia is doing all that is necessary to protect itself amid NATO’s expansion toward its borders,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at the time. “The alliance is a truly aggressive bloc, so Russia does what it has to do. It has every sovereign right to take necessary measures throughout the territory of the Russian Federation
Kirby, who was then spokesman for the State Department, said in response that NATO is a “defensive alliance” that poses no threat to Russia. He called the Iskander move “destabilizing to European security.”
Wednesday’s Iskander drills were held against a backdrop of a string of Russian warnings and veiled threats relating to nuclear weapons since President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February.
Most have been verbal, but the rhetoric has been accompanied by Putin’s order that Russia’s nuclear forces be placed “on the highest alert” in February, and the test on April 20 of a newly-developed intercontinental ballistic missile, over the two months since
Poland and the Baltic states have been at the forefront among NATO allies in their support of Ukraine, but the Iskander drills may be designed more as a message to Sweden and Finland, as the two Nordic neighbors move towards shedding their historical neutrality and applying to join NATO.
Moscow has been warning for months that its opposition to NATO enlargement – while focused largely on Ukraine over recent years – applies to Finland and Sweden as well.
Last month Dimitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Kremlin’s security council, warned Sweden and Finland in a social media post against joining NATO, saying that “nobody in their right mind wants … Iskanders, hypersonic weapons or ships with nukes a stone’s throw from their house.”
Should Finland and Sweden apply to join NATO, they will be covered by the alliance’s article five mutual defense commitment. But that only applies once they are members, not during the unspecified length of time needed for the current 30 allies to consider the applications.
After meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington this week, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said in a Swedish television interview that she had received assurances of U.S. security support between a time of applying to join NATO, and actual accession.
Linde did not elaborate, beyond saying that the U.S. would not allow “negative” Russian actions against Sweden to occur “without a response.”
A State Department readout of the Blinken-Linde meeting did not mention security assurances, and the topic was raised during Thursday’s departmental press briefing.
Spokesman Ned Price reiterated U.S. support for NATO’s “open door” policy, which holds the possibility of membership open for aspirants that meet the requirements, if all 30 allies agree.
He said that if Sweden and Finland lodge applications to join, “I am certain that we will find ways to address concerns they may have regarding the period between the potential application and the final ratification.” Price noted that NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg had said as much last month.
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