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Should we be worried by Putin's plan to station nukes in Belarus? Probably not

The Russian leader’s move is likely just the latest attempt to intimidate Ukraine’s allies while his military struggles to advance on the battlefield, analysts told NBC News.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest round of nuclear saber rattling has drawn concern and condemnation from the West, but his promise to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus may do more to expose the Kremlin’s weakness than shift the dynamics of the war in Ukraine.

Putin’s announcement that he would deploy the weapons on the territory of Moscow’s trusted neighbor and ally — which comes as Russia’s military is struggling to claim any new successes on the battlefield — was decried as “dangerous and irresponsible” by NATO, while Kyiv said it threatened “the international security system as a whole.”

But the move is most likely just the latest attempt to use nuclear threats to intimidate Ukraine’s allies, military analysts said, and it may not just widen the ever-growing chasm between Moscow and the West but potentially test Russia’s growing friendship with China.

Putin made the announcement in an interview that aired Saturday night on Russian state TV, where he said storing the country’s tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus — which borders three NATO members, as well as both Russia and Ukraine — did not violate nuclear nonproliferation agreements and would, in fact, mirror Washington’s stationing its nuclear weapons in Europe for decades.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a staunch ally whom Putin propped up after violent protests nearly toppled “Europe’s last dictator” in 2020, had long requested the move, Putin added.

Lukashenko himself took nearly a week to respond, saying in an address to the nation Friday that he had intensified talks with Putin “on the return of nuclear weapons to Belarus” to “safeguard” his country, which he said was under threat of invasion from the West.

Belarus, which does not possess its own nuclear weapons after it transferred the stock it inherited from the Soviet era to Russia in the 1990s, is not officially a party to the war in Ukraine, although Moscow used its territory to launch the full-scale invasion last year.

But promising to station his tactical nuclear weapons there will not give Putin any real advantage on the battlefield in Ukraine, said Andrey Baklitskiy, a senior researcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, based in Geneva.

“This move would not give Russia any capability it did not have before,” Baklitskiy said. “Nuclear weapons have only played a political and informational role in the war up to now, so every side will use this decision as a talking point.”

Russia will claim it is supporting an ally, accuse the West of hypocrisy over NATO nuclear sharing and put some pressure on the West, Baklitskiy added, while Ukraine and NATO will condemn Russia’s nuclear saber rattling and try to shore up international support to put pressure on Moscow.

Russia has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world, at close to 6,000 warheads, according to estimates by the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based nonprofit policy research and advocacy organization.

Putin has repeatedly vowed that he will not hesitate to unleash this arsenal should Russia’s security or existence be threatened, and he has ramped up those threats at times in the face of major setbacks.

Given the lack of any breakthroughs in Russia’s current ground offensive, its nuclear arsenal remains one of the few aspects of its military power that still commands a measure of respect in the West, said Christopher Tuck, an expert in conflict and security at King’s College London.

Putin’s latest nuclear rhetoric replicates “an existing Russian pattern of resorting to vague nuclear policy announcements to divert attention from difficulties in other areas,” Tuck said.

“The likely intent is to manipulate Western fears of nuclear escalation and, through this, to try and contribute to a process of the wearing out of Western support for Ukraine,” he said.

Putin’s decision on Belarus is an admission that “he is afraid of losing,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, tweeted last Sunday. “All he can do is scare with tactics.”

So far, Washington and its allies have been critical but measured in their responses to Putin’s comments.

Both the National Security Council and the State Department said in separate statements that the U.S. had “not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture nor any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon.”

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, President Joe Biden called Putin’s plans “worrisome.”

And while NATO criticized Putin’s remarks, it echoed Washington in saying it has not seen any changes in Russia’s nuclear posture that would lead it to adjust its own.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called Putin’s intentions a “threat to European security” and said the E.U. stands ready to respond with further sanctions.

The West’s reaction will not change Putin’s plans, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday.

Russia, Belarus joint military drill continue
Tactical ballistic missiles are fired during joint Russian and Belarusian military drills in Gomel, Belarus, in February 2022.Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The threats come amid broader nuclear tensions with the collapse of the last remaining arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia.

The U.S. said Tuesday it will withhold some nuclear data from Russia in response to Moscow’s decision not to provide data required under the New START Treaty. Putin unilaterally suspended Russia’s involvement in the treaty in February.

Russia and China have criticized the U.S., Britain and Australia for agreeing to a deal on nuclear-powered submarines, but experts said Putin’s Belarus move could also open a rift in the burgeoning alliance.

The Belarus announcement could also raise eyebrows in Beijing after China’s leader, Xi Jinping, visited Moscow last week in a show of support for the increasingly isolated Kremlin, said William Alberque, the director of strategy, technology and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Putin and Xi said in a joint statement that all nuclear powers must not station nuclear weapons outside their national territories and must withdraw all nuclear weapons stationed abroad.

Asked about Putin’s comments about Belarus on Monday, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman, Mao Ning, reiterated Beijing’s stance, calling for a political settlement in Ukraine and avoiding a nuclear crisis. 

Alberque said that if Xi was not consulted on Putin’s announcement, however, it could make him rethink the basis for cooperating with Russia in the future.