Maj Gen Neeraj Bali (Retd)
The announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that his country would deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus has been chiefly met with stoic indifference. Usually, any development that signals ‘escalation’ of nuclear activity would cause disquiet – but the relative non-reaction is not surprising. The world, in general, and the stakeholders in the war on Ukraine are acutely aware that this move has little military significance beyond how it might impact the morale of the soldiers currently jousting on the plains of Ukraine.
The fact is that Russia possesses a large arsenal of nuclear-capable missiles. Western sources put the number at 5997, marginally more than the nuclear weapons controlled by President Joe Biden. 1588 Russian missiles are deployed – as a part of its strategic forces. The delivery systems for these deadly munitions are varied – while the bulk of them are designed to be launched from ground stations, the remainder is distributed among submarines and heavy bomber bases. It is common knowledge among experts that Russia has six nuclear missile fields in locations such as Kozelsk, Tatishchevo, Uzhur, Dombarovskiy, Kartalay, and Aleysk. It also has nuclear missile submarines based out of naval bases at Nerpich’ya, Yagel’Naya, and Rybachiy and nuclear bombers at Ukrainka and Engels air bases.
The numbers are misleading. The two arch-enemies need only a fraction of these to destroy each other many times. That realisation had driven the two countries from climbing from the astounding peak of Cold War status when the Soviet Union possessed 45,000 nuclear warheads and the US 30,000.
Why is the current move largely bereft of any military significance? And why has the world reacted to it with equanimity bordering on indifference?
The answer to both questions is that the forward deployment of nuclear weapons does not extend the range of Russian strategic reach. The range of the Russian ballistic missiles is such that the current Russian deployments can fully hit every Western target. Moving a few tactical nuclear weapons into Belarus does not alter or enhance that reality. It is pure optics –pins on a map might graphically indicate that the looming danger of a nuclear strike is closer to Kyiv, but the fact is that many locations in Russia – the areas of Bryansk and Kursk – are as close.
Another reason why Putin’s declaration did not set the cat among the pigeons is the fact that it has been on the anvil for a long time. After a referendum in 2022, just ahead of the Russian invasion, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko amended his country’s constitution that legislated neutrality during a war. Several months preceding this change, he had already offered to host Russian nuclear weapons on his country’s territory.The West expected this move. The US dismissed it, asserting it warranted no readjustment of its nuclear posture.
What, then, is the military significance of this sabre-rattling?
At best, it is designed to shore up the morale of Russia’s forces, which are still locked in a slogging match 400 days after the ‘special operations’ began. Naturally, the move is also aimed at denting the morale of the Ukrainian forces, which are awaiting a fresh offensive by Russia in the near future. It is a stratagem to act as a ‘force multiplier’via information warfare.
The war in Ukraine has had its twists and turns. The Russian assumptions of rolling Ukrainian armed forces over have been dashed. Also, Ukraine’s counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson have hurt Russia, as has the destruction of 1700 of its armoured vehicles. But the conflict has never reached a threshold that would warrant using nuclear weapons.
The transfer of weapons envisages moving a few tactical nuclear weapons into Belarus without according their control to the host country. The possibility of their use is less than remote.
The significance of the move lies largely in the realm of geopolitics. It is Russia’s way of signalling to the West that the expansion of NATO in Europe will not go unanswered. It is a scare tactic to discourage the West from increasing its military support for Ukraine. Possibly, it is also meant for a nudge for negotiated settlement – though no such overt move has been made.
By any stretch of the imagination, this development is not a game-changer. Putin’s announcement may have caused a minor ripple in the ocean of geopolitics. But it is just that – a temporary ripple that did not survive even a few news cycles.
(The author is a military veteran with expertise in security affairs)
Note – This article was first published in The Financial Express