Russia has tested a "hypersonic" missile capable of a nuclear strike anywhere in Europe in what Russian president Vladimir Putin called "a great New Year's present for the country".
The 'Avangard' system, to be deployed in 2019, travels at 20 times the speed of sound and has a range of 6,000km.
"It is impervious to current and future air defence and missile defence systems" of Western countries, the Russian president claimed on Wednesday (26 December), after the new rocket was fired from a military base near Russia's border with Kazakhstan to hit a fake target in the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia's far east.
The missile "performed vertical and horizontal manoeuvres and hit the hypothetical target on time within the range's combat field", the Kremlin said in a statement.
"As soon as next year, the Avangard system will be put into service. A regiment will be formed to start combat duty," Putin added, speaking from the National Centre for State Defence Control in Moscow.
The posturing comes amid a row between Nato and Russia over Russia's violation of a Cold War-era nuclear arms control pact, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).
The US, on 4 December, said it would pull out of the pact in 60 days unless Russia stopped violating the INF ban on deploying medium-range nuclear cruise missiles capable of striking targets in Europe at short notice.
The INF dispute could lead to "a new arms race" in which the US also deployed medium-range missiles in allied EU states, the EU foreign service warned.
Russia has a track record of nuclear sabre-rattling since geopolitical tensions spiked after its invasion of Ukraine four and half years ago.
But Pavel Podvig, a Russian expert at the UN's Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, previously told EUobserver that this was meant to act as a deterrent against Nato, which had a conventional military superiority to Russian forces in Europe.
"Military doctrine says Russia would only use nuclear weapons if the Russian state is facing an existential threat", Podvig told this website.
"For instance, if Russian forces are at risk of being defeated, then you could use a nuclear weapon against some isolated island at sea. The thinking is that if you use a nuclear weapon, even if you don't hit enemy forces you stop them by showing your will to use any means necessary to halt the aggression", he said.
Peter Pomerantsev, a British expert on Russian propaganda, has also said that such sabre-rattling was designed to paint Putin as a frightening "bogeyman" in an effort to dissuade Western moves to counter Russia's hostile actions, for instance, by sending military assistance to Ukraine.
The risk of a Nato-Russia clash comes amid Russia's campaign of military harassment of Nato assets in the Baltic Sea area, where Nato recently deployed four multinational battalions to show its readiness to halt potential Russian aggression.
The threat of escalation in the Ukraine conflict also arose in November, when the Russian navy fired on Ukrainian vessels in the Black Sea area.
Ukraine imposed martial law in response, while saying that Russian troop movements on its border and a spike in hostile propaganda indicated that it was preparing a further invasion of territories between Russian-occupied areas of eastern Ukraine and Russia-occupied Crimea.
But Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko declared the end of the martial law on Wednesday.
"Today, right now, at 2:00PM, the martial law ends ... based on analysis of all the components of the security situation in the country", he said on TV.
A leading military analyst, Michael Kofman, from the Woodrow Wilson International Centre, a think tank in Washington, also debunked the idea of a new Russian invasion in his blog the same day.
He said the most likely next incident in the Ukraine conflict was "an artillery duel - exchanges of indirect fire that typically escalate in January/February" on the contact line in east Ukraine.
"The daily exchanges of indirect fire often flare up after the holiday truce in January ... it feels like Moscow is looking to bloody Ukraine at the first available opportunity," he said.
Exchange of fire on the contact line on Christmas Day saw a Russian sniper kill a Ukrainian soldier. Ukrainian military intelligence said one Russian soldier was also killed.
Meanwhile, international monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an international body based in Vienna, reported multiple ceasefire violations in the run-up to Christmas.
There were 195 explosions in the Donetsk area of east Ukraine between 21 and 23 December and 105 explosions in the Luhansk area, as well as bursts of small arms and anti-aircraft fire, it said in its last report.
It recorded movements of self-propelled artillery and rocket launch systems, among other hardware, in Ukraine-controlled areas in violation of a ceasefire pact, the so-called Minsk accord.
The OSCE's drones saw dozens of cars and cargo trucks crossing the Ukraine-Russia border in the region, which remains under Russian control, also in violation of the accord.
Date: Dec 28, 2018