Putin leads sweeping nuclear exercises as tensions soar
MOSCOW, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Russian leader Vladimir Putin oversaw strategic nuclear exercises involving the launch of hypersonic ballistic missiles and other weapons on Saturday, the latest show of strength at a time of acute tension with the West over Ukraine.
Putin watched the drills from a "situation centre" in the Kremlin, sitting alongside his close ally, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
The drills involved launches from warships, submarines and warplanes as well as from land that struck targets on land and at sea, the Kremlin said.
Two ballistic missiles were launched - one from a site in northwest Russia and the second from a submarine in the Barents Sea - hitting targets thousands of miles away in the far east peninsula of Kamchatka, it said.
Russia's RIA news agency aired footage showing a split screen of various top senior military chiefs as well as Putin, who ordered the drills to begin.
The Kremlin has said the exercises are part of a regular training process and denied they signal an escalation of the standoff.
They follow a huge series of manoeuvres by Russia's armed forces in the past four months that have included a build-up of troops - estimated by the West to number 150,000 or more - to the north, east and south of Ukraine. Russia denies planning to attack Ukraine.
"In the context of the current situation on our western borders, this will certainly be perceived as a signal," said Dmitry Stefanovich, a research fellow at the Moscow-based IMEMO RAS think tank.
"The signal to the West is not so much 'don't interfere', but instead designed to say that the problem is not Ukraine and actually much wider," he said.
Putin and other top officials frequently refer to the fact that Russia, together with the United States, is one of the world's leading nuclear powers.
In the footage aired by RIA, Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov told Putin: "The main purpose of the exercise is to train the strategic offensive forces' actions aimed at delivering a guaranteed defeat of the enemy."
Ships and submarines from the Northern and Black Sea Fleets launched Kalibr cruise missiles and Zircon hypersonic missiles at sea and land targets, the Kremlin said.
The Defence Ministry released footage of aircraft launching a Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missile and striking a land target.
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