BRUSSELS (HPD) — NATO’s secretive Nuclear Planning Group met Thursday as the military alliance pushed ahead with plans to hold a nuclear exercise next week, amid growing concerns over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence on , that he will use any means necessary to defend Russian territory.
Defense ministers led the session, which usually happens once or twice a year, at NATO headquarters in Brussels. The meeting came amid heightened tensions as some NATO allies, led by the United States, deliver advanced weapons and ammunition to Ukraine to defend against Russian airstrikes.
NATO is suspicious of Russia’s moves, but has so far made no changes to its position on nuclear weapons.
There was an additional source of uncertainty because Russia was also planning to hold its own nuclear exercises soon, perhaps at the same time as NATO or right after, according to NATO diplomats. That could complicate the reading of the war and of Moscow’s intentions for the military organization of 30 countries.
“Russia will also have its annual exercise, I think, the week after or right after the annual exercise,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told reporters. “But what we don’t want is to do things outside of the routine.”
“This is a routine exercise and it’s all about preparation,” Wallace said, just like “the NATO meeting is about making sure we’re ready for anything. I mean, that’s the job of this alliance, to make sure that all 30 partners together are ready for whatever comes our way. And we have to keep working on it.”
The NATO exercise, titled “Firm Noon,” takes place on roughly the same date each year and lasts about a week. The operation involves fighter jets that can carry nuclear warheads, but no real bombs are used. Conventional fighters and surveillance and refueling aircraft are also often involved.
The exercises, planned before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, will feature 14 NATO members. The bulk of the operation will take place more than 1,000 kilometers (625 miles) from Russia.
NATO as such does not possess any weapons. The nuclear weapons associated with the alliance remain under the firm control of three member states: the United States, Britain and France. But France insists on maintaining its nuclear independence and does not participate in the meetings of the Nuclear Planning Group.
After the Russian army withdrew in places before Ukrainian forces equipped with Western weapons, Putin upped the ante by annexing four Ukrainian regions and declaring a partial mobilization of up to 300,000 reservists to shore up the battered front.
As his war plans have gone awry, Putin has repeatedly said he might resort to nuclear weapons to protect the ground Russia has won. The threat is likely to deter NATO countries from sending more sophisticated weapons to Ukraine.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned on Wednesday about the responsibilities of leaders when it comes to talking about nuclear weapons. In an interview with France 2 television, Macron said he had spoken “several times” with Putin.
“We have a (nuclear) doctrine that is clear,” Macron said. “Deterrence works. But the less we talk about it, the less we wield the threat, the more credible we are.”
“There are too many people talking about it,” he said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg this week described Putin’s remarks as “dangerous and reckless” and stressed that the allies “have also made it clear to Russia that there will be serious consequences if it uses nuclear weapons in any way.”
Stoltenberg added that canceling the exercises by the world’s largest security organization “would absolutely be the wrong signal to give.”
“The firm and predictable behavior of NATO, our military strength, is the best way to prevent escalation,” Stoltenberg said. “If we were now to lay the groundwork for any misunderstanding, or miscalculation by Moscow about our resolve to protect and defend all allies, we would increase the risk of escalation.”
Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.