General Nikolai Makarov, chief of general staff of the Russian armed forces, said Russia’s risk of being pulled into local conflicts had “risen sharply”.
He added that “under certain conditions local and regional conflicts may develop into a full-scale war involving nuclear weapons”.
A steady decline in Russia’s conventional forces has prompted the Kremlin to rely increasingly on its nuclear deterrent.
Russia’s military doctrine says it may use nuclear weapons to counter a nuclear attack on Russia or an ally, or a large-scale conventional attack that threatens Russia’s existence.
Russia sees Nato’s expansion to include former Soviet republics and ex-members of the Soviet bloc in eastern and central Europe as a key threat.
Gen Makarov specifically referred to Nato’s plans to offer membership to Georgia and Ukraine as potentially threatening security. Russia routed Georgian forces in a brief August 2008 war over the separatist province of South Ossetia. Moscow later recognised South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia as independent states and increased its military presence there.
Gen Makarov warned the planned Nato pull-out from Afghanistan could trigger conflicts in former Soviet Central Asian nations that could “grow into a large-scale war.”