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Russia kicks off huge war games to test its nuclear arsenal

A Russian RS-24 Yars thermonuclear inter
A Russian RS-24 Yars SS-X-29 thermonuclear intercontinental ballistic missile launcher rolls out of a paint hangar at a strategic missile forces base near the town of Teykovo, about 160 miles northeast of Moscow, in a 2011 file photo. Getty

Moscow — Russia kicked off a sweeping military exercise of its Strategic Missile Forces on Tuesday. The Defense Ministry said the drills would include 16 practice launches of cruise and ballistic missiles. 

Dubbed "Thunder-2019," the war games were set to last three days and involve 12,000 troops, 213 missile launchers, 105 aircraft, 15 surface warships and five nuclear submarines.

"Among others, launches of the Yars intercontinental ballistic missile (SS-29) and the Sineva ballistic missile (SS-N-23) will take place," Yevgeny Ilyin, acting chief of the Ministry's Directorate for International Military Cooperation, said Monday at a briefing for foreign military attaches. 

He said test launches would be conducted from air, land and sea.

Not the same old drill? 

Ilyin said the exercise was scheduled a long time ago, was purely defensive in nature and aimed at training troops to deter a potential enemy. He assured the foreign officials at the briefing that the drill was not directed against any other countries.  

Indeed, Russia exercises its nuclear forces every October. Dmitry Stefanovich, a military analyst with the Moscow-based Russian International Affairs Council think tank, told CBS News it's a regularly scheduled exercise for the entire chain of command. 

"What makes it different this year is that it now has a name, and the military announced it beforehand at a briefing for foreign military attaches," Stefanovich said. "Plus this time there is a fantastic number of missile launchers of Strategic Missile Forces involved, the ground part of the nuclear triad. More than 200 (launchers). It's the majority of what they have."

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu first announced the "Thunder-2019" drill in December last year, when he reported to President Vladimir Putin that orders to modernize the country's strategic nuclear force had been implemented. 

Pro-Kremlin news outlets reported then that "Thunder-2019" was intended to be Russia's response to similar drills in the U.S. called "Global Thunder."

Post-INF posturing?

Stefanovich believes the similar names are just a coincidence. But he said there may be a connection to the Trump administration's decision this year to withdrawal the U.S. from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.

U.S. withdrawal from Cold War treaty with Russia stokes fears of new arms race 01:14

"According to the script of the drill, there's escalation along the borders, and it could involve deployment of short- and intermediate-range missiles," he told CBS News. 

Last week, Putin announced that Russia would start developing short- and intermediate-range missiles in response to U.S. plans to deploy such weapons in Asia. They are missiles that were banned for decades under the INF.

Russia formally withdrew from the Reagan-era treaty soon after the U.S., which had accused Moscow of working on new missiles that violated the terms of the accord.  

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