President Lukashenka of Belarus announced in June that Russia had begun delivering tactical nuclear weapons to his country, boasting in an interview for the Rossiya-1 television channel that the charges were “three times more powerful” than the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. 

Although the deployment does not change the overall nuclear balance between the United States and Russia, it is a significant escalatory move by the Kremlin. It is the first time since the end of the Cold War that Russian nuclear devices have been based outside its territory. Russia will retain control over the weapons. 

While Putin framed the deployment as a response to the presence of US nuclear weapons on a number of NATO bases in Europe (these first arrived in the 1950s), the implicit message could not have been clearer: Russia was ratcheting up its nuclear threat in response to the West’s continued support for Ukraine.

The United States has not altered its nuclear posture in response, limiting itself thus far to public criticism of the decision. Still, there is no denying that by moving short-range nuclear weapons into Belarus, the Kremlin is applying pressure precisely in the area of greatest concern among the allies, namely the risk that vertical escalation leads to nuclear war.

Russia’s actions ought to serve as a reminder that while Belarus remains nominally independent, it is for all practical purposes part of the larger Russian geopolitical space. Putin has used Belarusian territory to attack Ukraine directly, retrieve and repair damaged Russian equipment, provide logistical and medical support to his operations in Ukraine, and now as a bargaining chip in his nuclear gamesmanship against the West. Putin’s goal is to force the West to yield to nuclear blackmail and dial down its support for Ukraine. The US and NATO must decide how to respond and, ultimately, how to adapt the alliance’s deterrent posture to deal with the threat. 

The deployment of short-range nuclear weapons into Belarus also has a regional dimension, for Belarus borders three NATO countries: Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. All have registered concern about this escalation, with Poland asking to join NATO’s nuclear sharing program. (The issue was first raised by Polish President Andrzej Duda last fall, and reiterated by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in the wake of Russia’s deployment of short-range nuclear weapons to Belarus in July, with Warsaw arguing that its F-35s currently on order could be adapted to carry nuclear weapons.)

Although this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, the request was indicative of the growing concern among frontline allies about the expanding nuclear threat from Russia. NATO’s Eastern Flank allies see the deployment of Russian short-range nukes into Belarus as a logical outgrowth of Putin’s decision in December 2022 to supply Belarus with the Iskander SS-26 missile system, with tactical nuclear warheads now assigned to each missile operated in Belarus by the Russian military.

The launchers that were transferred to Belarus prior to the shipment of the warheads are the same as those used by the Russian forces (with a range of 400-500km, or 250-310 miles.) Each launcher carries two missiles, unlike the shorter-range export version of the Iskander which carries one missile per launcher.

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This is another indication that by installing the more capable launchers in Belarus the Kremlin intends to maximize the blackmail effect. The same applies to the four Su-30SM multirole combat aircraft that Russia sent to Belarus as the first installment of a contract for 12 aircraft — the Su-30SM are nuclear-capable and reportedly have the same characteristics as the aircraft used by the Russian air force. There are also reports that the existing fleet of the Belarusian Su-25 aircraft will be adapted to carry nuclear weapons.

The stationing of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus means a larger Russian force deployment in that country to protect and run the missile storage facility; in effect, the decision is synonymous with the garrisoning of more Russian troops in Belarus, underscoring the deepening integration of the Belarusian military into Russia’s command and control system. The deployment significantly increases the area that Russian tactical nukes can strike, complementing Russia’s nuclear deployment in the Kaliningrad exclave. In effect, these two sites put all flank countries within range, complicating deterrence and defense planning on the NATO side and requiring a Western response. 

Russia’s nuclear brinksmanship also marks the clear assertion of Moscow’s independent stance vis-à-vis Beijing when it comes to the threat to use nuclear weapons, as China has repeatedly stated it does not want nuclear weapons to be used anywhere in Eurasia. This does not mean that the Russian decision will undermine the Russia-China partnership, but it shows the limits of this bilateral “no-limits friendship.” The Sino-Russian alignment is not based on a particular sentiment or value set, but rather on the principle that the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” that undergirds bare-knuckled power politics. 

The transfer of nuclear weapons to Belarus signals the tightening of the Kremlin’s political and military grip over the country, and further subordination of Lukashenka’s armed forces and his security apparatus to Russia. It is also an indicator of what Putin would do in the event that he managed to subdue Ukraine — if victorious, Russia would likely place additional short-range nuclear weapons there as well to target and threaten NATO countries.

If the United States and NATO fail to respond by, for instance, expanding the nuclear sharing program, or at the very least renouncing the failed NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997 that Russia has repeatedly violated, Putin will read this as another sign of Western ambivalence and conclude that NATO has little appetite for risk-taking in this confrontation.

This will encourage more Russian adventurism along the Eastern Flank, and potentially trigger an even more dangerous confrontation with the West. In short, NATO should carefully weigh the political costs of failing to provide a strong response to this latest Russian attempt at nuclear blackmail.   

Chels Michta is a Nonresident Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Chels is a former CEPA Title VIII Fellow and is currently a military intelligence officer serving in the US Army.            

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Army, the US Department of Defense, or the US government

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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