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The allies Putin could arm to attack the West

President Vladimir Putin has warned that Russia could supply long-range weapons to other countries to be used in attacks against allies of Ukraine, and experts suggest Moscow has options to inflict damage around the world.

The Russian leader suggested that sending arms to other regions was under consideration after several Western nations authorised Kyiv to strike targets in Russia with weapons they are providing.

Speaking to journalists late on Wednesday, Mr Putin said: “We are thinking that if someone thinks it is possible to supply such weapons to a war zone in order to strike at our territory and create problems for us, then why do we not have the right to supply our weapons of the same class to those regions of the world where there will be strikes on sensitive facilities of those countries that are doing this to Russia?

“So the response could be symmetrical. We will think about this,” he added.

Washington has confirmed that Ukraine is using American hardware to strike targets in Russia after receiving a green light this week. The UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland have also said their weapons can be used for cross-border attacks, with varying conditions attached.

Mr Putin also reiterated a willingness to use nuclear weapons if Russia is threatened.

“For some reason, the West believes that Russia will never use it,” he said. “We have a nuclear doctrine, look what it says. If someone’s actions threaten our sovereignty and territorial integrity, we consider it possible for us to use all means at our disposal. This should not be taken lightly.”

The Kremlin underlined the president’s comments on Thursday. “The president said exactly what he wanted to say, and it’s a very important statement that is very transparent that the supply of weapons that will be fired at us cannot go without consequences, and those consequences are certain to come,” said spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

Protesters, largely Houthi supporters, hold rifles, as they rally to show solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Sanaa, Yemen May 31, 2024. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
Houthi supporters hold rifles at a rally in Yemen’s capital Sanaa (Photo: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

Independent experts suggest that Mr Putin’s statements could be a bluff.

“This sounds like a pretty empty threat,” said Dr Mark Galeotti, a Russia analyst and author of Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine. “Apart from the fact that Russian defence production is largely monopolised by the immediate needs of the war, the obvious potential recipients of such aid are either pariah states and movements like the Houthis in Yemen or Hezbollah and are unlikely to have goals that match Moscow’s.

“Putin’s rhetoric of this kind is generally intended to scare rather than to signal actual intent.”

The president’s statements reflect a lack of options to respond to or deter Western support for Ukraine, Dr Galeotti suggests.

“The big problem is that his escalatory options are either potentially self-harming, such as nuclear use or a new mobilisation wave – or else they are ones, like sabotage in Europe or cyber attacks, that he would want to keep deniable,” he said.

Russia has pursued alliances with nations such as Iran and North Korea that are also heavily sanctioned by the West. Members of the Iran-led “Axis of Resistance” including the Houthis are already engaged in conflict with the West and Israel.

An Israeli firefighter puts out flames in a field after rockets launched from southern Lebanon landed on the outskirts of Kiryat Shmona, on June 4, 2024 amid ongoing cross-border clashes between Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters. Since the outbreak of war between the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Israel on October 7, the Lebanese-Israeli border area has witnessed near-daily exchanges of fire, mainly between the Israeli army and Hamas ally Hezbollah. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
An Israeli firefighter puts out flames in a field after rockets launched from southern Lebanon landed on the outskirts of Kiryat Shmona on Tuesday as the Israeli army clashes with Hezbollah (Photo: Jack Guez/AFP)

Ruslan Trad, a security researcher at US think-tank the Atlantic Council, says Russia is already a major sponsor of such groups.

“The reality is that for some time the Russian Federation has been supplying – if not directly, then indirectly – its allies, including Iranian proxies,” he told i. “There are intelligence exchanges but also arms shipments through the Caspian region… Putin is only giving official notice of an already existing practice.

“There is a network for supply chains from Russia to Iran and Iraq, using boats and cars.”

While Iran is known to have supplied thousands of drones to Russia for use in Ukraine, detail on trade in the opposite direction is murkier.

Lloyd’s List Intelligence, which tracks maritime traffic, has reported an increase in ships travelling between the two countries with tracking signals turned off, suggesting illicit activity. The Washington Post reported in April that Russia may be providing its ally with air defence and electronic warfare capabilities, citing US, European, and Middle East officials.

Iran is the leading supplier for members of its axis, sending drones and missiles to the Houthis, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and allied militias in Iraq and Syria. Yemen’s Houthis have fired dozens of Iranian missiles at Red Sea shipping during the war in Gaza, claiming they are targeting Israeli vessels in solidarity with Palestinians.

Mr Trad adds that Russia could also seek to damage its enemies through African countries where it is becoming more influential.

The new government of Niger, which took power in a coup, has cut ties with France and established close relations with Moscow. A similar dynamic has played out in Burkina Faso, where the military regime has forged an alliance with Russia and expelled French troops and diplomats.

“Africa is a particularly important theatre of operations where Western powers are in serious retreat,” said Mr Trad. “Africa is important for Europe’s energy security and this is recognised in the Kremlin.”

Nick Reynolds, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, agreed that Russia could seek to undermine Western foes by forcing them out of former strongholds abroad, or through “sub-threshold” warfare, like the recent spate of sabotage attacks in Europe.

But he added that Russia now produces its own versions of Iran’s Shahed drones, which could provide a cheaper option for striking at Ukraine’s supporters.

“This would be a much more economical way of supplying allies particularly in areas where there isn’t good air defence capability,” he said, adding the drones are “potentially very disruptive technology that can be produced at a fairly low price point”.

He said Shahed drones have demonstrated efficacy over more than 1,000 miles, which could offer a wide range of targets across the “Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa”.

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