WASHINGTON -- Russia is "playing with fire" by suggesting it would threaten the use of nuclear weapons in territorial disputes, and the Obama administration believes this is part of a Russian intimidation campaign against the NATO alliance, the Pentagon's No. 2 official said Thursday.
Robert Work, the deputy secretary of defense, said he's troubled by what he calls Russian provocations. He described Moscow's defense strategy as seeking to control the escalation of security tensions by raising the nuclear ante.
"Anyone who thinks that they can control escalation through the use of nuclear weapons is literally playing with fire," he told a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on U.S. nuclear strategy and plans for nuclear modernization.
Work did not cite specific Russian statements but appeared to refer to President Vladimir Putin's comment in March that he had been ready to ensure that Russian nuclear forces were on high alert during tensions over Russian annexation of Crimea. Putin has made other moves to emphasize the readiness and power of the Russian nuclear arsenal.
Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who testified alongside Work, criticized Russian talk of a potential nuclear escalation in Crimea as part of its "bluster and threats" against the West.
"It's very important that the Russians understand that far from being de-escalatory, first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict like that risks uncontrolled escalation," Winnefeld said.
"Senior Russian officials continue to make irresponsible statements regarding its nuclear forces, and we assess that they are doing it to intimidate our allies and us," Work said. "These have failed. If anything, they have really strengthened the NATO alliance solidarity."
Work was testifying on the administration's approach to modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which is hampered in some cases by outdated equipment and facilities, at a cost some say is unaffordable given budget constraints and other priorities.
Work said the administration still aspires to a world without nuclear weapons but first must deal with the fact that Russia and China are modernizing their nuclear arsenals.