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 likely just the latest attempt to use nuclear threats to intimidate Ukraine’s allies, military analysts told NBC News, and 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 on Russian state TV Saturday night, where he said storing his country’s tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus — which borders three NATO members as well as both Russia and Ukraine — was not in violation of nuclear nonproliferation agreements and will, in fact, mirror Washington 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.
The Belarusian leader 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” in order 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 transferring the stock it inherited from the Soviet era to Russia in the 90s, is not officially a party to the war in Ukraine, though its territory was used by Moscow 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, 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 told NBC News. “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’s 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, with 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 major 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 added.
“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.”
Putin’s decision on Belarus is an admission that “he is afraid of losing,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said in a tweet last Sunday. “All he can do is scare with tactics,” Podolyak added.
Both the National Security Council and State Department told NBC News 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 was critical of 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.
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 that it will be withholding 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 that 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, director of strategy, technology and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Putin and Xi released a joint statement that said all nuclear powers must not station nuclear weapons outside of their national territories and must withdraw all nuclear weapons stationed abroad.
Asked about Putin’s comments on Belarus on Monday, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning reiterated Beijing’s stance, calling for a political settlement in Ukraine and avoiding a nuclear crisis.
If Xi wasn’t consulted on Putin’s announcement, however, it could make him rethink the basis for cooperating with Russia in the future, Alberque said.