In a first since the 1990s, Russia is planning to station nuclear weapons outside the country. In a March 25 announcement, President Vladimir Putin said Russia plans to deploy nuclear missiles to Belarus, along with a missile system capable of carrying the weapons.
“From April 3, we start crew training, and on July 1 we are finishing the construction of a special repository for tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus,” said Putin.
NATO condemned Putin’s decision the following day, criticizing his “nuclear rhetoric” and calling it “dangerous and irresponsible.” But in the same statement, NATO seemed to indicate that the decision had not changed their approach, declaring, “We have not seen any changes in Russia’s nuclear posture that would lead us to adjust our own.”
While no posturing involving weapons as powerful as nuclear missiles is risk-free, some international observers indicated that Russia still isn’t likely to use its nuclear arsenal, regardless of where it’s stationed. But by repeatedly reminding the world of its nuclear arsenal, experts say, Russia has shown that even if it’s not ready to use the weapons on the battlefield, it’s more than willing to brandish them as a threat.
Why is Russia placing nuclear missiles in Belarus?
Russia already has long-range nuclear weapons, and stationing missiles in Belarus won’t extend their range to new targets, according to an analysis from the Institute for the Study of War. Instead, the institute argued, its goal may be to frighten countries and discourage them from provoking Russia by expanding their support for Ukraine.
“Putin is attempting to exploit Western fears of nuclear escalation by deploying tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus,” the Institute said in its analysis.
Ukrainian leaders, meanwhile, framed Putin’s decision as a sign of weakness following Russia’s struggles on the battlefield. Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to President Zelensky, wrote on Twitter, “he admits that he is afraid of losing & all he can do is scare with tactics.”
Even if Putin’s announcement does not raise the risk of nuclear war, it could still have a powerful impact on Ukraine’s allies. Putin may be using the weapons to reaffirm his commitment to the war, Heather Williams, director of the Project on Nuclear Issues for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an email. “This is Putin’s way of saying he has more at stake in Ukraine than NATO does,” she said. NATO has shown “incredible restraint” as Russia has made nuclear threats, says Williams, and it should keep trying to reduce nuclear risks in Ukraine.
Dalibor Rohac, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said in an email that even if Russia does not intend to use the weapons, its nuclear arsenal and threats can “make the west doubt its support for Ukraine.” Without it, Robac says, the west might have provided Ukraine with stronger support from the beginning of the war.
Does placing missiles in Belarus raise the threat of nuclear war?
Not by much, experts say. John Kirby, a National Security Council spokesperson, said there is “no indication that he has any intention to use nuclear weapons, period, inside Ukraine,” in an interview on Face the Nation on Sunday. The Institute for the Study of War’s experts agreed, writing, “The announcement of the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus is irrelevant to the risk of escalation to nuclear war, which remains extremely low.”
A nuclear attack in Ukraine would be a “risky gamble” for Russia and probably wouldn’t help its military, says Rohac. In particular, he says, it could lead to negative consequences for Russia, including a conventional military response by NATO and the loss of China’s support. “The use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia against Ukraine is a possibility (unlike the use of nuclear weapons against NATO countries) but a very remote one,” says Rohac.
What does this move say about Russia’s relationship with Belarus?
It may be too soon to determine whether Russia’s announcement will have an influence on Ukraine’s allies. However, Russia’s announcement may be indicative of its relationships with Belarus.
Putin is often credited with helping President Alexander Lukashenko maintain his regime in Belarus despite growing public opposition. In turn, Lukashenko permitted Russia to station its troops in Belarus during the invasion of Ukraine.
However, the decision to move nuclear weapons into Belarus shows that the leadership in Minsk has “very little agency” in its relationship with Russia, and it increases the risk of destabilization in Belarus, says Rohac. “Turning Belarus into a complete pariah state, possibly provoking public unrest, might lead to a further crumbling of the regime’s already tenuous hold on power—necessitating further Russian involvement or leading to instability,” he says.
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