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Would Russia really use nuclear weapons against neighbors?

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Even more explosive, Patrushev added that Russia might strike first against an enemy whom it suspected of harboring belligerent intentions. "In a situation critical for national security, we don't exclude a preventive nuclear strike at the aggressor," he said.

Some critics say it seems almost bizarre to lower the threshold for using atomic weaponry at a time when Moscow is trying to negotiate radical reductions in strategic warheads with the United States and President Dmitry Medvedev has signed on to the "Global Zero" campaign for a world free of nuclear arms.

These critics also warn that the new doctrine, which Mr. Medvedev is due to sign in December, could have a chilling effect on Russia's relations with other post-Soviet states if the final version includes those provocative points.

"It seems that even in the case of small conflicts, such as the war Russia had with Georgia last year, where there is a fear that the US or NATO might intervene," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a military expert with the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta, "we are now going to invoke nuclear deterrence. Nobody is really intending to use nuclear arms, but the point here is to warn other big powers to stay away in the event of conflicts in our own neighborhood," such as a hypothetical crisis with Ukraine over Crimea, or with Georgia over the breakaway state-lets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, he says.

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