Putin takes ‘nuclear blackmail’ to new level with Belarus plans

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is upping the ante in his game of nuclear blackmail with the West by promising to place missiles in Belarus. 

The transfer of nuclear weapons, which comes ahead of an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, is intended to raise fears of escalation as the U.S. and NATO allies consider arming Kyiv with more advanced weapons, including modern fighter jets. 

It’s unclear that moving nukes to Belarus will change the course of the war dramatically, but it shows that Putin wants to keep the nuclear threat in the minds of Western leaders. 

Anna Ohanyan, a nonresident senior scholar in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that “new armor in Ukraine is creating uncertainties and fear in Moscow.”

“So the nuclear option,” she continued, “is really done as a way to enhance Putin’s power and compensate for [his] losses and inability to win on the battleground.”

John Erath, the senior policy director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said Russia already has the capability to strike anywhere in Europe with nuclear weapons.

“The fact that they’re moving some of these smaller nuclear weapons from one barn to another doesn’t really change the equation,” he said. 

But Erath said Russia is pushing to “create a circumstance in which Ukraine and Ukraine’s supporters decide it’s too much effort to fight,” and he stressed that it is imperative for the West to resist.

“That whole idea of using the threat of a nuclear weapon as an instrument of statecraft will become normalized” if Putin succeeds, he said. “We’re going to see it again and again, starting with North Korea.”

Putin said over the weekend his nation would maintain control over the short-range tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, a key Russian ally that neighbors Ukraine to the north, adding that construction of storage facilities will be completed by July.

The definition of tactical nuclear weapons is hotly debated, but they have a shorter range and lower yield than nuclear warheads fitted to ballistic missiles. Still, tactical nuclear weapons can have dozens of more kilotons of yield — the amount of energy released upon detonation — than the bombs dropped over Hiroshima in World War II, which had a yield of around 13 kilotons.

Tactical nuclear weapons can be carried by warplanes, short-range missiles or artillery. Russia is believed to have some 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, while the U.S. has around 100 nuclear gravity bombs stationed in Europe.

Putin has defended his decision to transfer the weapons to Belarus by citing the deployment of U.S. B61 nuclear gravity bombs in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.

“We are doing what they have been doing for decades, stationing them in certain allied countries, preparing the launch platforms and training their crews,” Putin said on Russian state television.

The transfer of nuclear weapons to another country is not prohibited under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, meaning Russia’s action is not a violation of the 191-member nation pact.  

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said Putin could decide to deploy a tactical nuclear weapon in the face of a “catastrophic loss” in Ukraine. 

But he believes the risk of a nuclear attack is still low because Russia would likely become an international pariah, even with nations that have remained neutral during the war. 

“The international community responded very strongly to those statements last year,” Kimball said of Putin’s nuclear threats. “Not just the United States and NATO but India, China and many nonnuclear weapon states.”

Putin put his nuclear forces on high alert last year and said his nuclear threats were “not a bluff.” In February, he suspended the last remaining nuclear pact between the U.S. and Russia. 

Western allies have repeatedly called the rhetoric from Russia dangerous and reckless. A NATO spokesperson this week said the transfer of tactical weapons to Belarus would not force the alliance to change posture in the region. 

Ukraine on Sunday accused Putin of “nuclear blackmail” and called for an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council, saying the world should be “united against someone who endangers the future of human civilization.” 

Putin also said his transfer decision followed the United Kingdom’s supplying of ammunition with depleted uranium to Ukraine. Depleted uranium cannot be used for a nuclear weapon. 

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said in a press briefing last week the depleted uranium ammunition is “not a radioactive threat,” calling Putin’s argument a “straw man” logical fallacy. 

“It is not anywhere close to going into the nuclear realm,” Kirby said. “This is a commonplace type of munition that is used particularly for its armor-piercing capabilities.”

“So, again, if Russia is deeply concerned about the welfare of their tanks and their tank soldiers, the safest thing for them to do is to move them across the border and get them out of Ukraine,” he added. 

Daniel Högsta, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said “nuclear sharing” on both sides “increases the risk nuclear weapons will be used.”

“It likely increases the number of direct targets of any adversary, in order to remove secondary strike possibilities in an escalating nuclear exchange scenario,” he said in a statement.

And Högsta took little solace in the fact the weapons in question were tactical nukes, which mainly means they were designed for use on the battlefield.

“Any nuclear weapon would have [a] devastating blast, fire and long-term damage from ionising radiation,” he said. 

Belarus was one of four former Soviet Union members that transferred nuclear weapons over to Russia when the federation collapsed in the 1990s. Russia’s plan to move some back into Belarus would mark its first nuclear weapon transfer since the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Putin has slowly paved the way for the transfer, modernizing Belarusian aircraft to carry nuclear warheads and providing Iskander short-range missiles to the country last year.

Ohanyan, of the Carnegie Endowment, said the transfer would pull Belarus, which has so far resisted sending troops into Ukraine, closer into Putin’s orbit. But she also said it shows that Putin is becoming increasingly reliant on Belarus. 

“It does signify Russia’s political weakness in doing this because it reverses the historical process that was in Russia’s favor,” she said.

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Putin takes ‘nuclear blackmail’ to new level with Belarus plans

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