At their meeting on June 25, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, discussed the deployment of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons in Belarus—a new and potentially dangerous development in the ever-worsening security situation in Europe. The issue was raised by Lukashenko but the decision was announced by Putin. It had two elements: Belarusian Su-25 attack aircraft will be equipped to carry nuclear weapons, and conversion of the planes and training of pilots will be implemented in Russia. Nothing was said about the deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus, but this can be presumed; otherwise, there would be no reason to create a dual-capable aircraft capability, although the transfer of weapons might require a separate decision. Second, Iskander missiles—a dual-capable, short-range (500 kilometers or 310 miles) missile system—will be deployed in Belarus in both its ballistic and cruise-missile versions.
The next day the Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov clarified that the deployment will not necessarily involve the transfer of nuclear warheads and that the systems discussed by Putin were “technically capable” of carrying nuclear weapons.
A NATO official told the Bulletin that planned deployment was not “a strategic game-changer from a regional deterrence perspective,” indicating that the enhancement of the Russian conventional capability was more consequential for NATO than the nuclear implications.
Unsurprisingly, Russia’s justified the nuclear-sharing decision by citing the growing threat of NATO. It is noteworthy, though, that Putin used highly inflated and outdated estimates of NATO nuclear capability—200 nuclear bombs in six countries and 257 aircraft to carry them. The director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists, Hans Kristensen, corrected Putin on Twitter, noting that NATO currently has about 100 bombs deployed in five countries and probably about 100 dual-capable aircraft. The numbers matter little in this case, but they do illustrate Moscow’s willingness to distort reality to justify its policy decision.
Putin’s decision to deploy dual-capable missiles in Belarus raises three obvious questions: Why? Why now? Is the decision reversible?
Rationale. The most obvious rationale for Russia’s future deployment in Belarus is this week’s adoption of the new NATO Strategic Concept, which foresees the additional deployment of NATO forces on its Eastern flank to enhance deterrence of Russia; the soon-to-happen accession of Finland and Sweden to the alliance probably also played a role in that decision. The prospect that the US Army may deploy a ground-launched hypersonic missile in Europe in a few years undoubtedly also attracted the attention of Russian policy and military leaders. Although the system is still under development, Russian leaders clearly have considerable faith in the ability of the United States to quickly develop and deploy advanced weapons systems.
Although NATO emphasizes conventional deterrence (the nuclear component of the new Strategic Concept effectively repeats the previous, 2010 document), Russia will face a serious challenge: Its conventional capability is limited, and it consequently has to emphasize nuclear weapons. In principle, there is nothing new about reliance on nuclear weapons to balance a superior conventional power: NATO practiced the same approach during the Cold War. But today such an arrangement is less politically and morally acceptable. Russia exercised that option in the 2000 Military Doctrine by allowing limited nuclear use in sub-strategic (“regional,” according to Russian military doctrine terminology) conflicts; now it will have to return to the old policy.
There are two main differences between the present-day and the two-decades-old policies, however.
First, in 2000, Moscow conceptualized reliance on nuclear weapons as a temporary fix, needed only until it succeeded in building a long-range, precision-guided capability of its own. The task was completed by the mid-2010s. The 2014 Military Doctrine introduced the notion of non-nuclear deterrence, and in the fall of 2015 Russia demonstrated the new capability in action by using sea- and air-launched cruise missiles at targets in Syria.
The war in Ukraine has seriously depleted Moscow’s conventional deterrence, although the stockpile of these weapons has turned out to be greater than anticipated. By early May 2022, Russia had used 2,125 precision-guided missiles in Ukraine, and that number has increased since then. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov reported in early June that producers were successfully coping with the needs of the military. But Russia will probably need years to replenish the stockpile and further increase it to match NATO’s enhanced deterrence capability. So renewed reliance on nuclear weapons, at least temporarily, appears the only way to make the Russian deterrent credible.
Deployment of dual-capable Iskanders in Belarus would enhance both conventional and—if accompanied by the transfer of nuclear warheads—nuclear deterrence. Two brigades of these missile systems deployed in Kaliningrad Oblast can already reach targets in all of Poland and across the Baltic Sea. But additional deployment there may not be an optimal military solution as a high concentration of assets in a small area could increase their vulnerability. Deployment of perhaps a similar number of Iskanders in Belarus could make more sense from an operational standpoint.
Second, since 2000, Russia has emphasized long-range capability, whether conventional or nuclear. This time, Moscow introduces short-range, tactical delivery vehicles. This development—probably prompted by NATO’s emphasis on forward deployment—is not trivial and is probably intended to give Russia the capability to hold at risk the greater number of targets that will emerge in Poland and the Baltic states after NATO enhances its forward presence. The expected accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO will effectively turn the Baltic Sea into a “NATO lake,” potentially closing it to the Russian Navy and enhancing the vulnerability of all coastal areas. Reliance on short-range nuclear-capable weapons does not negate the traditional emphasis on theater-range systems but rather would complement it.
Interestingly, the conversion of Belarusian Su-25 aircraft to a dual-capable role would mirror NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements: In peacetime, weapons would be controlled by Russian personnel but, in wartime, they would be used by Belarusian pilots using Belarusian aircraft. Given this significant nuclear policy development, we may hear soon Moscow saying that NATO should not worry as Russia has only copied NATO’s policy. The Russian-Belarusian nuclear sharing will also be leveraged in any negotiations on non-strategic nuclear weapons—were such negotiations to ever begin.
Timing. Making the announcement now—only a few days ahead of the adoption of the new NATO Strategic Concept—is at first glance not obvious. Logically, it should have followed NATO’s new posture, perhaps even with significant delay. After all, the new strategic concept, despite being approved, will take time to shape, and Russia would have had plenty of time to announce and implement any further deployment. Politically, it would have been advantageous for Russia to announce its decision as a response to NATO’s policy—just like it did in the past.
Russia’s announcement likely was triggered by the partial blockade of Kaliningrad Oblast that Lithuania introduced in the preceding week. On June 17, Vilnius banned the transit through its territory of Russian goods affected by the European Union’s sanctions, referring to a European Commission decision it said it had to implement. A few days later, however, the commission clarified that the ban on transit did not apply to the circulation of goods between two parts of Russian territory. Lithuania, in response, refused to abide by the new guidance, saying it opposed any exemptions to EU sanctions.
The partial blockade on the circulation of goods is obviously not a reason to brandish nuclear weapons. But the issue should be seen in a broader context. Moscow has had concerns about the future of its exclave for a long time. If Russia can no longer supply Kaliningrad Oblast—in August and December, EU sanctions will broaden and include Russian coal, oil, and gas, and so will Lithuania’s ban—an irredentist sentiment may increase, making policymakers in Moscow worry that the territory may want to break away from Russia.
Recently, former Latvian interior minister Marius Gulbis called Lithuania’s ban on transit “the first step [to] take away [Kaliningrad].” Although coming from a retired official, Gulbis’ statement received major attention in Russian media. Only three days after Lithuania’s decision, Russia’s secretary of the Security Council, Nikolay Patrushev, reported that Russian security services had terminated activities in Kaliningrad Oblast of non-governmental organizations funded by Poland, Germany, Belgium, and other European countries, including one that advocated a “German-speaking autonomy.” A prominent member of the Federation Council (the upper chamber of the Russian parliament), Vladimir Jabarov, warned that any attempt to break Kaliningrad away from Russia could result in a “mincemeat war” and later warned again about the possible use of force against Lithuania if Russia considers its territorial integrity is being threatened—a clear reference to Russia’s nuclear posture.
If the transit issue is not resolved, the Kaliningrad Oblast region has the potential of becoming a major security hotspot in Europe for years to come. Since Lithuania is a member of both NATO and the European Union, its decisions regarding Kaliningrad can have consequences far beyond its border with Russia. In the near future, Russia will likely continue its diplomatic protests and economic sanctions against Lithuania—to the extent it can levy any more impactful sanctions against a country that has already virtually stopped any trade and other relations with Russia and Belarus. Eventually, as active fighting in Ukraine subsides, and Russia can restore its military capability, tensions in the region may become more tangible, so that use of military force—and even nuclear brinkmanship—cannot be ruled out.
Irreversibility. Russia’s decision announced on June 25 does not appear reversible, although it is notable that the transfer of nuclear warheads to Belarus was not mentioned, indicating this could require a separate decision. In fact, a decision to transfer nuclear warheads could not come for years, as the reequipment of aircraft, training crews, and reviving of the nuclear storage infrastructure would take considerable time. Whether warheads will actually be moved to Belarus will depend on how relations between Russia and NATO develop in the next several years; unfortunately, the probability of improvement or even stabilization in the near future appears very low, if not negligible.
The new stage in the military stand-off between Russia and NATO demonstrates that for the time being their relations will be almost exclusively confined to mutual deterrence. In the absence of a cushion, which was previously provided by robust economic relations, the Russia-NATO relationship will be unstable and more than ever prone to conflicts. As the Russia-Ukraine war continues to unfold, the policies of Europe, whether conceptualized as the EU or as NATO, will be strongly influenced by countries that favor a tougher approach to counter Russia and further enhancement of deterrence. These policies, however, may elicit from Russia an even greater reliance on nuclear weapons. As a result, NATO may find it increasingly difficult to continue relying on conventional deterrence and may also seriously consider a greater role for nuclear weapons—despite its new Strategic Concept, which refrains from making such a move.
To add to the uncertainties, a change of leadership in any of the concerned states could significantly change current policies. For instance, it is not impossible that the “union state” of Russia and Belarus may transform into a (con)federation of states, which would affect how decisions are made in the realm of deterrence. The future is less politically predictable, both in the East and in the West, than it has been over the past decades. There are reasons to believe, however, that in Russia most of the public and elite opinion will continue to see the West as hostile to their country. Domestic politics may change, but a serious shift in Russian foreign and defense policies on the scale of those introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s does not appear to be a possibility in the foreseeable future.
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