Russia's military chief of staff said Saturday that Moscow could use nuclear weapons in preventive strikes in case of a major threat, the latest aggressive remarks from increasingly assertive Russian authorities.

"We have no plans to attack anyone, but we consider it necessary for all our partners in the world community to clearly understand ... that to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia and its allies, military forces will be used, including preventively, including with the use of nuclear weapons," Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky said.

The comments from the hawkish Baluyevsky did not appear to mark a policy shift for Russia, whose leaders have stressed the need to maintain a powerful nuclear deterrent and reserved the right to carry out preventive strikes to counter existential threats. But in most of their public remarks about preventive strikes, President Vladimir Putin and other officials have not specifically mentioned the use of nuclear weapons.

Baluyevsky's remarks came at a time of increasingly strained relations between Moscow and the West, which are at odds over a range of issues and are embroiled in persistent disputes over U.S. plans for missile defense facilities in former Soviet satellite states that have joined NATO as well as alliance members' refusal to ratify an updated European conventional arms treaty.

Like most saber-rattling by Putin and other Russian officials, the chief of staff's remarks appeared aimed at least in part at the United States, which Moscow accuses of endangering global security through aggressive actions such as the invasion of Iraq.

Putin, who has sought to boost his popularity at home and win support abroad with his vocal criticism of U.S. foreign policy, has said that Russia opposes the use of preventive military attacks but reserves the right to carry them out because other countries do so.

Baluyevsky identified no specific nations or forces that threaten Russia. According to the ITAR-Tass news agency, however, he said threats to global security include "the striving by a number of countries for hegemony on a regional and global level" — a clear reference to the United States — and terrorism.

With Russian officials jockeying for position ahead of the March 2 presidential election, Baluyevsky's remarks at a military conference in Moscow may also have been aimed in part at a domestic audience.

Putin is barred from seeking a third term but has endorsed protege Dmitry Medvedev as his favored successor and has said he will become prime minister in the event of Medvedev's election, which is virtually assured given Putin's support and the Kremlin's control over electoral politics.