Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Moscow’s military to raise the alert status of its large nuclear forces on Sunday, and the threat will test a 2012 agreement that calls on China to provide a nuclear deterrent umbrella for Ukraine.
The bilateral treaty described the two states as “strategic partners.”
“China pledges unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the nuclear-free Ukraine and China further pledges to provide Ukraine nuclear security guarantee when Ukraine encounters an invasion involving nuclear weapons or Ukraine is under threat of a nuclear invasion,” a joint statement on the pact said.
Nearly two decades earlier, Ukraine voluntarily gave up the nuclear weapons it inherited upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which would’ve been the world’s third-biggest arsenal, and joined the global treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a non-weapons state.
As Russian military forces bogged down in efforts to pacify Ukraine rapidly using a three-pronged military offensive, Mr. Putin said Sunday that “aggressive statements” by NATO prompted the directive.
“Western countries aren’t only taking unfriendly actions against our country in the economic sphere, but top officials from leading NATO members made aggressive statements regarding our country,” Mr. Putin said in comments broadcast on Russian television.
If the higher alert status is detected by U.S. and western intelligence agencies, U.S. strategic forces – missiles, submarines and bombers – would almost certainly respond by raising their alert status.
The nuclear alert is part of a new Russian military doctrine called “escalate to de-escalate” that reflects Moscow’s weaker conventional forces and stronger nuclear power.
U.S. defense officials have said the new doctrine means Russia’s military will more rapidly escalate to the use of nuclear weapons, tactical nuclear arms or possibly strategic weapons, in a regional conflict.
At the Pentagon, a senior defense official said the United States “had no reason to doubt” the ordering of a higher nuclear alert status.
The official said the action represented an unnecessary “escalatory” threat since Russia is not facing any nuclear dangers from NATO or the west.
“And escalatory because it is clearly potentially putting at play forces that if there’s a miscalculation could — could — make things much, much more dangerous,” the official said.
Regarding whether U.S. nuclear forces have gone on a higher alert status in response, the senior official said “we do not talk about the specifics of our strategic deterrent posture.”
“I would just tell you that we remain confident in our ability to defend ourselves and our allies, and our partners, and that includes in the strategic deterrent realm, and that is as far as I’m going to go on that question.”
The increased nuclear danger comes as the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said talks between Ukrainian and Russian officials would take place at the Belarusian border.
China’s government has tacitly supported the Russian military operation against Ukraine by not condemning the military aggression and repeatedly announcing that Moscow had “legitimate security concerns” with Ukraine.
Former State Department policy official Miles Yu, who first disclosed the China–Ukraine nuclear pact, said the nation most likely to threaten the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine is Russia, another strategic partner of Beijing.