Russian Nukes In Belarus: Lessons From Putin's Cheapest Blackmail Yet
Of course Russia's announcement of moving tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus should not be underestimated. But the reality is that, since the beginning of the invasion, Russia's nuclear situation has not changed. We should instead look hard at where both Minsk and Beijing have wound up.
PARIS — It's yet another episode of atomic blackmail: Russian President Vladimir Putin has once again raised the threat of nuclear weapons announcing that some tactical nuclear weapons — "small" bombs intended for use on the battlefield — will be moved to Belarus.
The silos are not expected to be finished before July, Putin says — so the threat is not immediate. But this announcement is already causing a stir, as has happened every time over the past year when Moscow has raised the threat of nuclear apocalypse. Why does Putin continue to play this card?
First, it's important to note that Putin is not afraid of self-contradiction. The day before the Belarus announcement, he signed a declaration with Chinese leader Xi Jinping stating that "nuclear powers should not deploy nuclear weapons outside their territory." Putin could point out that Americans are doing exactly that in some NATO countries, but the contradiction still says a lot about the limits of Russian commitments.
What is Putin trying to achieve? He has clung to the same objective since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine: scaring Europeans who do not want to "die for Ukraine."
Many in the West strongly believe that Putin's threats are serious, and that the risk of nuclear war should not be underestimated.
Moscow's grip on Belarus
The reality is that, since the beginning of the invasion just over a year ago, Russia's nuclear posture has not changed, according to the United States, which is watching closely. The Pentagon saw no change in Russia's nuclear posture on the day of Putin's announcement, and indicated that NATO was doing the same.
Still, two lessons can be drawn from this announcement. The first is that Belarus is a Russian vassal state. Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator in Minsk, has been said to be cautious and uninterested in getting directly involved in the war.
But ultimately he has no choice but to obey the demands of the Kremlin, which has been his lifeline since the stolen 2020 election. Some Westerners regret that sanctions have driven Lukashenko into Putin's arms, but in any case, the two regimes are now bound together.
The only victim in this episode is Belarusian sovereignty.
Secondly, we must be cautious about China’s role in this war, and especially the idea that it can mediate a peace deal. By signing this declaration with Putin, Xi has first and foremost polished his own image as a peaceful power figure. But the very next day, Putin did the opposite of what he had promised.
Europeans going to Beijing, like French president Emmanuel Macron, who is headed there next week, brandish the Chinese statements on nuclear weapons like a trophy. This may help to avoid fatal escalations, but it is not enough. If Xi were serious, he would prevent Putin from deploying his tactical weapons in Belarus, a move which would contradict their joint statement.
In the end, this is primarily a rhetorical escalation, as we have seen from Putin before. The only victim in this episode is Belarusian sovereignty — but no one had any illusions on the matter. The war will continue on conventional military terrain, with no signs of stopping any time soon.
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