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Russian Nukes in Belarus: Why Putin Is Escalating Again

Russian President Vladimir Putin is again reverting to his most effective card as his troops struggle to make significant headway on the devastated frontlines of Ukraine and as Kyiv prepares to turn its new Western weapons against Moscow’s occupying forces.

The Russian president announced this weekend that Moscow would build storage facilities for tactical nuclear weapons—which are designed with a smaller yield and intended for battlefield rather than strategic use—in Belarus and train Belarusian pilots to deliver the warheads from their own Su-24 aircraft .

Putin gave no indication of when the warheads might be sent and how many would be deployed, though he said he expected the necessary storage facility to be completed by July 1. The declaration touched off an international media furor, though officials in the US and elsewhere were more stoic.

“We have not seen any indication he’s made good on this pledge or moved any nuclear weapons around,” National Security Spokesperson John Kirby told CBS.

“We’ve, in fact, seen no indication he has any intention to use nuclear weapons—period—inside Ukraine,” Kirby said. “Obviously, we would agree that no nuclear war should be fought, no nuclear war could be won and clearly that would cross a major threshold.”

Putin is still setting the media agenda, though his apparent intention to put nuclear weapons in Belarus might be a sign of insecurity rather than confidence.

“This is escalation of dominance, Putin-style,” Mark Voyger—a former special adviser for Russian and Eurasian affairs to then-commander of the US Army Europe General Ben Hodges—told Newsweek. “He’s trying to achieve a strategic victory of sorts.”

Oleg Ignatov, the Crisis Group’s senior Russia analyst, concurred, telling Newsweek that Putin’s latest nuclear threat is in keeping with his long-established approach.

“Putin’s policy is manageable escalation,” Ignatov said. “He wants to escalate; he wants to show that he’s ready to escalate more than the West and to make the situation less politically comfortable. It doesn’t mean that he’s going to attack.”

Alex Kokcharov, a risk analyst specializing in Russia and Ukraine, told Newsweek that the weekend announcement “doesn’t mean that the nuclear weapons will necessarily be deployed,” only that the infrastructure to base them in and launch them from Belarus is being put in place.

“I think this is mostly politically motivated, and it indicates that Russia is not doing particularly well on the battlefield,” Kokcharov said. “They are going back to nuclear saber rattling in order to discourage European countries from supporting Ukraine. I don’t think it will work.

“If we look at the last year, Russia was ramping up their nuclear rhetoric when they were not doing particularly well on the battlefield. There was the first spike of these Russian nuclear threats in September, when the Kharkiv counteroffensive was taking place. And then another round was in late October, early November, when the Kherson operation was taking place.”

Still, experts told Newsweek that the expansion of Moscow’s nuclear umbrella cannot be ignored.

“The potential is that NATO would be somewhat distracted by this threat,” said Voyger, who is a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Analysis and professor at the American University of Kyiv. “I’m not saying you will work to help Russia win, but it can definitely help them distract the West in a certain way.

“We have to be mindful of all these movements of the Russian leadership, even if they don’t seem directly related to certain tactical situations on the ground.”

Tactical nuclear arms are one area in which Moscow enjoys an edge over its Western rivals, Ignatov said.

“Russia has an advantage in tactical nuclear missiles, because the Western countries have less,” he said. “And the Russians have a lot of them.”

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is still trying to somewhat straddle the growing East-West divide. Lukashenko has allowed Belarusian territory to be used to attack Ukraine through the full-scale invasion, including as a jumping-off point for the ill-fated drive toward Kyiv last spring, not long after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

Lukashenko is helden to Putin because of a long-standing economic reliance on Russia but also because the Kremlin effectively saved his regime from being topped by fierce pro-democracy protests in 2020.

Minsk has so far kept its own troops out of the war, though Moscow is believed to be pushing Lukashenko and his officials to commit fully to the quagmire in Ukraine.

“Lukashenko has always played this game where he is siding with Russia, but then also is trying not to fully follow direction from Moscow, with the hope that there would then be some sort of ability for him to negotiate with the West, and especially with the European Union,” Viktorija Starych-Samuoliene, the co-founder of the British Council on Geostrategy, told Newsweek.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is again reverting to his most effective card as his troops struggle to make significant headway on the devastated frontlines of Ukraine and as Kyiv prepares to turn its new Western weapons against Moscow’s occupying forces.

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