Russia's military chief of staff said Saturday that Moscow could use nuclear weapons in preventive strikes to protect itself and its allies, the latest aggressive remarks from increasingly assertive Russian authorities.
Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky's comment did not mark a policy shift, military analysts said. Amid disputes with the West over security issues, it may have been meant as a warning that Russia is prepared to use its nuclear might.
"We do not intend to attack anyone, but we consider it necessary for all our partners in the world community to clearly understand ... that to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia and its allies, military forces will be used, including preventively, including with the use of nuclear weapons," Baluyevsky said at a military conference in a remark broadcast on state-run cable channel Vesti-24.
According to the state-run news agency RIA-Novosti, Baluyevsky added that Russia would use nuclear weapons and carry out preventive strikes only in accordance with Russia's military doctrine.
The military doctrine adopted in 2000 says Russia may use nuclear weapons to counter a nuclear attack on Russia or an ally, or a large-scale conventional attack that poses a critical risk to Russia's security.
Retired Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin, formerly a top arms control expert with the Russian Defense Ministry, said he saw "nothing new" in Baluyevsky's statement. "He was restating the doctrine in his own words," Dvorkin said.
Moscow-based military analyst Alexander Golts said that when Russia broke with stated Soviet-era policy in the 2000 doctrine and declared it could use nuclear weapons first against an aggressor, it reflected the decline of Russia's conventional forces in the decade following the 1991 Soviet collapse.
"Baluyevsky's statement means that, as before, we cannot count on our conventional forces to counter aggression," Golts told Ekho Moskvy radio. "It means that as before, the main factor in containing aggression against Russia is nuclear weapons."
Putin and other Russian officials have stressed the need to maintain a powerful nuclear deterrent and reserved the right to carry out preventive strikes. But in most of their public remarks on preventive strikes, Russian officials have not specifically mentioned nuclear weapons.
Baluyevsky spoke amid persistent disputes between Moscow and the West over issues including U.S. plans for missile defense facilities in former Soviet satellites, NATO members' refusal to ratify an updated European conventional arms treaty, and Kosovo's bid for independence from Serbia.
Like Golts, Moscow-based military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said Russia plays up its nuclear deterrent because of its weakness in terms of conventional arms. "We threaten the West that in any kind of serious conflict, we'll go nuclear almost immediately," he said.
But in the absence of a real threat from the West, he said, "It's just talk."