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Russia to Station Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Belarus

Putin and Lukashenko
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his counterpart from Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko. Credit: President of the Russian Federation / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0

Russia is planning to deploy some of its tactical nuclear weapons to neighboring Belarus, announced Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday.

According to the Russian President, storage units for the nuclear weapons will be completed by July 1. Putin compared the decision to move the warheads to the US’s deployments in Europe.

Vladimir Putin’s decision comes just days after Moscow and Beijing signed a joint statement urging nuclear powers to withdraw weapons deployed beyond their national borders. Meanwhile, some analysts fear that Russia might use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine, particularly if the Russian armed forces are not able to prevail with conventional means.

Russia to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus

According to Putin, the decision to deploy some of Russia’s nuclear weapons in Belarus was in response to a request made by the latter country’s leader, Alexander Lukashenko.

Putin and Lukashenko are close allies. Indeed, Russian forces have continued to amass in Belarus throughout the conflict in Ukraine and although Belarussian troops are not fighting themselves, the country has become an important logistics hub and staging ground for Russian forces.

Speaking yesterday, Putin was keen to stress the legitimacy and legality of his decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons outside of Russian borders.

“There is nothing unusual here: first of all, the US has been doing this for decades,” said the Russian President. “They placed their tactical nuclear weapons in six different allied NATO countries in Europe. [ . . . ] we have agreed to do the same thing, without, I stress, violating our international non-proliferation obligations.”

“They have [tactical nuclear weapons] in certain countries, prepare the delivery systems, and train the crews. We’re planning to do the same thing,” he added.

Strategic implications

Tactical nuclear weapons are designed to be used in a military context to deliver an advantage on the battlefield.

They are less powerful than strategic nuclear weapons, which are generally intended to be used against heavily populated cities in order to deliver a knockout blow to the enemy. Due to the presumed consequences of mutually assured destruction, strategic nuclear weapons are often thought of as “world-ending” weapons.

There has been some speculation amongst security analysts that Russia might use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine to break a military stalemate and force Kyiv to concede.

As nuclear security experts like J. Andrés Gannon have pointed out, tactical nuclear devices are not necessarily “wonder weapons” which could decide the fate of the war. If for example, Russia used a tactical nuclear strike to halt a Ukrainian counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces could still advance on another axis.

Similarly, if Russia wanted to knock out Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, conventional bombing might be a better option, given the greater accuracy of most conventional missiles over their nuclear counterparts.

In any case, it is unlikely that the decision to deploy these weapons to Belarus would precipitate a nuclear attack against Ukraine. It is more probable that Putin intends for the weapons to signal a warning to Ukraine and its supporters that Russia has the means and ways to end the war on its own terms.

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