Vladimir Putin says he plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, the neighboring ally from which he staged part of his February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. When the Russian president uses the word “nuclear” the world pays attention and that appears to be a major reason why he said it.
As usual with Putin, the world should read the fine print and check the context. The weapons Putin plans to move to Belarus are not strategic nuclear weapons, those giant intercontinental ballistic missiles that, if fired, could end life on earth.
Tactical nuclear weapons are smaller, but powerful, and can be used on the battlefield. Putin has been threatening the possibility of nuclear war for the past year, especially when his military operation in Ukraine is faltering.
That could help to explain the context of Putin’s announcement. He’s a man with a lot of problems right now. Russian forces are bombarding Ukrainian cities from the air, but their ground war is not making much headway.
Aside from several new trade agreements with China, Putin didn’t get much out of his summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. If anything, Russia now appears to be China’s junior partner.
Then there’s the International Criminal Court and the arrest warrant it has issued for Putin.
Now, about that fine print.
Putin is blaming his decision on the other side, saying he made it in response to the United Kingdom supplying Ukraine with anti-tank ammunition that contains depleted uranium.
That, Putin charges, is a dangerous escalation. The UK denies this, explaining that the ammunition is used only for conventional purposes.
Putin says Russia already is constructing a storage facility for the tactical nukes that will be ready by July. He gave no specific date on which the tactical weapons would arrive.
What’s more, he notes, Russia already has 10 aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons, as well as several short-range Iskander missile systems that could carry nuclear weapons.
Russia has a huge nuclear arsenal but will Putin use it in Ukraine?
Significantly, the Russian leader said he will not transfer control of the tactical nuclear weapons to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been requesting the weapons for a long time.
That strikes two former US diplomats with whom I spoke as strange.
Lukashenko, they point out, signed an agreement in 1994 to give up the strategic nuclear weapons that Belarus still had at the end of the Cold War.
Why would he decide to do this? One diplomat points out that the weapons would have to be maintained by Russian forces who would be permanently stationed on Belarusian soil, a sign that Lukashenko is even more under Putin’s control.
The Biden administration appears unperturbed by Putin’s announcement. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the US is monitoring the implications of Putin’s statement but added: “We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture, nor any indications that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon. We remain committed to the collective defense of the NATO alliance.”
And yet, moving Russian tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus moves them closer not only to Ukraine but to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, all NATO allies.
That raises the threat level in Europe, something that Putin intended to do.