Once Joseph Stalin’s Kremlin obtained the capability to detonate an atomic bomb in 1949, popular sentiment held that the next great world conflagration would end in something along the lines of a nuclear holocaust. But for the most part, the world seemed to believe that such a conflict would play out between the world’s two great superpowers, the United States and Russia. But as the war in Syria draws more and more heavy-hitting combatants into the fray, Russia – who has the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world according to nuclear watchdog ICAN – is reportedly weighing the use of weapons of mass destruction against ISIS, a considerably smaller foe than its Western counterpart.
According to Russia Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently met with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to review results of their military’s latest offensive moves against ISIS. As noted by Fox News, Russia launched a major strike on Tuesday against Raqqa, the capital of the purported ISIS caliphate. The Russian attack was launched from a submarine in the Mediterranean. During his discussion with Shoigu, Putin made special mention of the fact that both the air –to-surface and water-to-surface missiles being used in anti-ISIS operations can be equipped with nuclear warheads.
“We must analyze everything happening on the battlefield, how the weapons operate,” Putin said in comments published by Russia Today. “The Kalibrs (sea-based cruise missiles) and KH-101 (airborne cruise missile) have proved to be modern and highly effective, and now we know it for sure – precision weapons that can be equipped with both conventional and special warheads, which are nuclear.”
Putin further indicated that it did not appear that it would be necessary to use nuclear weapons against a threat such as ISIS, but he did not completely remove such an option from the realm of possibility.
“Naturally, this is not necessary when fighting terrorists and, I hope, will never be needed,” Putin said.
Defense Minister Shoigu told Putin that “significant damage” was inflicted upon ISIS positions in Raqqa, including ammunition storage facilities, a mine production plant, and the ISIS-held oil infrastructure.
Russia launched its first strikes on ISIS via air on September 30, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. Seeking to avoid further destabilization in the region, Russia is also decidedly aligned with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Assad’s regime has been under attack from a number of armed opposition groups including ISIS since Syria’s civil war began in 2011.
Even before President Vladmir Putin’s nuclear-themed rhetoric, Russia’s involvement in Syria had already become the source of increased geopolitical tension. In November, Turkish forces shot down a Russian plane after the jet allegedly strayed into Turkish airspace during anti-ISIS operations. A war of words between Putin and Turkey’s President Erdogan ensued in which both sides expressed blunt contempt for one another. Al Jazeera recently noted that while Russia did not retaliate with a military strike, it is clear that the relationship between the two countries appears permanently damaged and almost overtly hostile. It is worth noting that Turkey is a NATO country and if attacked by Russia, would ostensibly be entitled to military support by its NATO allies, including the United States.
A report from the New York Times indicates that a total of eight countries are openly engaged in the war in Syria at present, not counting the Syrian government and a hoist of anti-Assad insurgent groups. The United States heads a coalition of nations including France, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Russia and Iran support Assad in his fight against all anti-government factions, including ISIS. At present, ISIS controls territory in Syria and Iraq.
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