PULASKI COMMENTARY:  Russia’s Atomic Gambit – the deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus and its consequences (Sebastian Czub)

PULASKI COMMENTARY: Russia’s Atomic Gambit – the deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus and its consequences (Sebastian Czub)

The President of Russia Vladimir Putin has declared that nuclear weapons will now be deployed to Belarus. This announcement comes in the wake of further donations of military aid to Ukraine, the strategic talks between Russia and China, and the looming perspective of a Ukrainian counter-offensive. In this context some commentators wonder if the decision to proliferate nuclear weapons is an imminent threat or a desperate play to secure the crumbling position of the Russian Federation.

Nuclear weapons stationed in Belarus

Putin declared that Russia will deploy a contingent of nuclear weapons in Belarus, but one needs to make clear what  exactly it means. Firstly, Putin stated that a special storage facility for nuclear weapons will be constructed in Ukraine. Allegedly this facility will be completed by July 1st, there is no mention however, when or how many weapons will be sent there.[i] Additionally Putin declared that Russian crews tasked with operating the nuclear arsenal in Belarus will begin training next week. The type of nuclear weapons is also not entirely specified. Russia has decided to station Iskander ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads to a distance of up to 500 kilometres.[ii]

Russia has also sent 10 aircraft, of unspecified model, capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Russia has at its disposal several different types of aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons, with different ranges and capabilities, which makes it difficult to assess the threat that they pose. Some sources have pointed out that the deployment of MiG-31 aircraft is most probable. This aircraft has the ability to deploy the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missiles (Russians present it as hypersonic) that can be armed with nuclear warheads capable of striking targets at a range of up to 2000 kilometres away.[iii] These missiles are very similar in structure to the Iskander missiles, already confirmed to be deployed in Belarus, fitted with a new guidance system designed specifically for air-to-ground operations.[iv] Kinzhal missiles have already been deployed by Russia during the invasion of Ukraine successfully, with Ukrainian air defences unable to counter them, and are allegedly able to overcome even the more advanced Western systems like the Patriot system.[v] Ukrainian air defences, including combat aircraft, also struggle to combat the missile carrier – the MiG-31.[vi] Thus, Ukraine does not have the ability to effectively combat such a threat.

The West’s answer to atomic threat

The deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus has caused a major outcry in the West. Many consider this act as nuclear proliferation, an action banned under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which Russia itself has ratified. Russia falls under Article I of the treaty, stating that nuclear-weapon states undertake not to transfer atomic weapons to other countries, with Belarus falling under Article II stating that non-nuclear-weapon states undertake not to receive atomic weapons.[vii] Interestingly, Putin stated that the deployment of nuclear arms to Belarus is in accordance with the non-proliferation treaty, as the weapons will be controlled, maintained, and operated by Russian personnel. Putin stated that this is done in a similar manner to the US – NATO nuclear weapons sharing agreement, that allows the US to operate nuclear weapons in chosen NATO states. This take has been disputed by some western experts with NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu claiming that „NATO allies act with full respect of their international commitments,”, while Russia routinely breaks or withdraws from such agreements, such as the New START treaty.[viii]

Regardless of the legality of the Russian nuclear deployment the US stated that it does not expect Russia to use its nuclear arsenal. The US Defense Department further stated that they “have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture” and that „We remain committed to the collective defence of the NATO alliance.”.[ix] The presence of shorter range atomic weapons in Belarus is of little strategic consequence to NATO, due to the presence of similar arms in Kaliningrad. The western surety might not be enough for Ukraine however, as it faces a starkly different reality lacking the protective umbrella of the NATO alliance. As Ukraine gears up for its spring offensive the threat of nuclear escalation has never been more real, and a string of Russian defeats in conventional warfare might just push Russia over the atomic brink.

What Russia hopes to achieve with their nuclear gamble

The deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus can be indicative of further wide plans of the Russian Federation. The major indication here is the timing and nature of the Russian declaration to deploy nuclear weapons to Ukraine. During Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow last week, the Chinese president along with the Federations president Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement saying that “all nuclear powers must not deploy their nuclear weapons beyond their national territories, and they must withdraw all nuclear weapons deployed abroad.”.[x] Just days later Putin declares the deployment of nuclear weapons beyond the border of the Russian Federation in direct opposition to the promises made with his “dear friend” from China. This might suggest several scenarios:

  • Option 1, the Russia – China talks did not go as smoothly as the two countries might want the others to think. It is possible that Xi Jinping’s lack of formal declaration of support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, had caused Putin to forge ahead on his own terms. This could explain the lack of any major agreements between the two countries during the state visit. This is also supported by the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning stating that China opposes the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons to [xi]
  • Option 2, China and Russia came to a mutual agreement in secret, with all official statements only done for show for the West. As mentioned China opposes the deployment of atomic weapons, but such statements could be part of a long term disinformation campaign, hiding the country’s true intention and delaying the detection of Chinese support for the Russian invasion. This could also indicate that the Chinese support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine is much greater than anticipated, thus confirming the statements of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
  • Option 3, Putin does not consider Belarus as an independent state but rather a part of the Russian Federation and aims to use this to exert Russian control over the country. The permanent presence of Russian nuclear troops and military facilities in Belarus would allow Russia to interfere more into the internal affairs of the country, basing for example on the need to protect the strategic installations. This goes in pair with the secret Russian presidential document, uncovered by journalists several weeks ago, stating that Russia will annex Belarus by [xii] The document itself states that Russia will aim to take over Belarus by promoting and acting on the ideas of protection against the expansion of the West. The placement of nuclear weapons, along with Russian garrisons in the country is already being presented as countermeasures against the alleged “NATO expansion”. The continuous interference in internal affairs of Belarus and increased influence of Russian actors in the country might lead to the formal total integration of the two countries, based on the precedents set under the 1999 “union state” agreement. It is possible that Russia might have sped up the annexation process in order to utilise the Belarusian military in a desperate attempt to win the war in Ukraine and recreate Russia’s position as a global power. This scenario is highly probable and not exclusive with the other options.

Conclusion

The deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus is a stratagem and a worrisome one at that. Atomic fire might not be unleashed, but it might be harnessed by Russia to strengthen its position without relying on China. A soft breakaway from China would force Russia to double down on its invasion of Ukraine, in a desperate bid to emerge as a resurgent empire. In this case the annexation of Belarus would not only strengthen the Russian state but also its armed forces and threaten the north of Ukraine. With newfound forces and determination Russia could become much more threatening, opting to employ all available assets to win the gruelling war for Ukraine. Thus, the West might not need to worry about Russia deploying nuclear weapons against them, but it should worry about the strength that this atomic gamble might give to Russia.

Author: Sebastian Czub, Analyst at Casimir Pulaski Foundation

[i] James Gregory, “Putin: Russia to station nuclear weapons in Belarus”, BBC News, March 26, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-65077687.

[ii] James Gregory, “Putin: Russia to station nuclear weapons in Belarus”, BBC News, March 26, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-65077687.

[iii] Missile Defense Project, „Kh-47M2 Kinzhal,” Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 27, 2018, last modified March 19, 2022, https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/kinzhal/.

[iv] Alex Hollings, “Why the 'hypersonic missile’ Russia says it just used in Ukraine isn’t as advanced as it sounds”, Business Insider, March 21, 2022, https://www.businessinsider.com/russias-kinzhal-hypersonic-missile-isnt-as-advanced-as-it-sounds-2022-3?IR=T.

[v] David Hambling, “Russia Raises Stakes With Wave Of Hypersonic Missile Attacks On Ukraine”, Forbes, March 9, 2023, https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidhambling/2023/03/09/russia-raises-stakes-with-wave-of-hypersonic-missile-attacks-on-ukraine/.

[vi] Justin Bronk, Nick Reynolds, and Jack Watling, “The Russian Air War and Ukrainian

Requirements for Air Defence”, Royal United Services Institute, November 7, 2022, https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/special-resources/russian-air-war-and-ukrainian-requirements-air-defence.

[vii] United Nations, “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)”, United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, accessed March 27, 2023, https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/npt/text.

[viii] James Gregory, “Nato condemns 'dangerous’ Russian nuclear rhetoric”, BBC News, March 26, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-65081575.

[ix] James Gregory, “Putin: Russia to station nuclear weapons in Belarus”, BBC News, March 26, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-65077687.

[x] TASS, “Russia, China believe nuclear powers must not deploy nuclear weapons abroad — statement”, TASS Russian News Agency, March 21, 2023, https://tass.com/world/1592475.

[xi] KyivPost, Twitter, March 27, 2023, https://mobile.twitter.com/KyivPost/status/1640316636203737089.

[xii] Amanda Rivkin, “Russia plans Belarus 'absorption’ by 2030 — media reports”, Deutsche Welle, February 21, 2023, https://www.dw.com/en/russia-plans-belarus-absorption-by-2030-media-reports/a-64771429.