On March 26, Putin made public statements indicating that preparations are being made to house Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, which will be completed by July 1. Putin’s speech laid out the following
- A facility for housing Russian tactical nuclear weapons is being consructed in Belarus, which will be completed by July 1.
- Upon completion, Russian tactical nuclear weapons will be housed there.
- The weapons will remain under the exlusive management of the Russian military, and the Belarussian government will have no power to deploy the weapons on its own.
- 10 Belarussian aircraft will be outfitted to deploy nuclear weapons.
Many analysts are in agreement that while provocative, these moves will not represent any significant change in Russia’s nuclear calculus and are mere saber rattling.
There are some very clear indications that the move is purely political, and has no military implications.
First and foremost, housing nuclear weapons in Belarus does nothing to expand Russia’s ability to deploy tactical nuclear weapons at the front lines of the War.
For example, what is widely considered the most advanced Russian nuclear tactical weapon would nuclear warheads equipped on the hypersonic 9K720 Iskander.
This is a genuinely terrifying weapon. With a top speed of Mach 5.9 and a range of 500km, it is capable to hitting far and very fast. So fast that it is highly unlikely to be succesfully intercepted. With a 5KT-50KT warhead, the lack of precision accuracy for Russian cruise missiles is unlikely to matter, and it can instantly wipe out an area about 1-2 miles in diameter.
But this underscores why housing tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus (let alone retrofitting Belarussian aircraft to carry nuclear bombs) is meaningless.
The headline picture above places a 500km radius from hypothetical launch points in Belgorod and Rostov oblasts in Russia. You can see that every front in the war is already within range of Russian hypersonic nuclear weapons.
Adding a new housing facility in Belarus does absolutely nothing to expand Russian ability to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in the context of the Russo-Ukrainian War.
Not to mention, Russia lacks MOPP4 gear to protect its forces in a nuclear battlefield.
To protect soldiers on a nuclear battlefield, you need an enormous amount of protective equipment. Basic individual gear to prevent breathing in nuclear ash and to protect from radiation. Ventilated trailers and tents where soldiers can eat, drink, injured soldiers can rest, or just a place for troops to remove their gear and sleep.
Russia has, well, about none of that.
A tactical nuke only has a blast radius ranging from a few hundred yards (5KT) to 1.5 miles (30-50KTs). In other words, even the largest tactical nuclear strikes are unlikely to knock out more than a densely packed battalion or 2 (1000-2000 soldiers)—which is certainly significant, but not enough alone to swing a war where Ukraine has upwards of 200,000 soldiers in the field.
What it COULD do is unexpectedly and instantaneously blast a hole in the Ukrainian line. If the Russian army could exploit this gap, penetrate the Ukrainian defenses and create a breakthrough, the tactical nuclear weapon could provide a benefit that far exceeds the pure number of soldiers it killed.
But this would require the Russian army to literally charge units at a mushroom cloud of radioactive ash.
Without any protective equipment, it seems unlikely that Russia could exploit such an opportunity—and even if they forced Mobiks to charge, how well soldiers suffering from radiotion poisoning could cotinue to fight would be highly doubtful.
On the diplomatic front, deploying nuclear weapons obviously carries the risk (for Russia) for a direct entry in the war from NATO, which would be catastrophic.
But there’s also the issue of India.
India has maintained close relations with Russia since the Soviet era. it is, and has been for decades the largest purchaser of Russian arms in the world. It is one of the few major countries that continues to import Russian energy, and is the largest importer of LNG (liquid natural gas) from Russia in the world.
Despite this long standing close relation with Russia, India has been icy about Russia’ invasion of Ukraine. It did not vote against the UN resolution that denouned the Russian invasion, abstaining from the vote. in the UN vote expelling Russia from the UN Council on Human Rights, Russia tried to bring its allies in line saying that it would view absentions as hostile actions against Russia, but India chose to abstain from the vote again.
The big geopolitical issue for India is not the US or Russia, but China. The Sino-indian border disputes have led to several hundred casualties in numerous border clashes from 2020-present, with dozens of deaths on both sides. Tensions are extremely high.
India has responded by joining the Japanese led diplomatic initative started by the late Shinzo Abe, known as INDOPAC. What you might call “NATO-Lite of Asia,” INDOPAC is a security cooperation agreement that brought numerous nations that felt threatened by Chinese agressive moves, leading to closer relations between india, Japan and the US as the primary military powers.
This has resulted in concrete actions, such indo-US cooperation in combating west African pirates, numerous joint exercises between the Indian Navy, the US Naby and the JSDF (Japanese Self Defense Forces).
India has a particular interest in the issue of threats of nuclear force to protect territorial gains from invasions—India’s fear would be a Chinese invasion of the disputed border regions. Nuclear threats from China to protect those gainis would be, obviously, intolerable to India. Thus, India has a strong interst in maintaining the taboo against using nuclear weapons in aggressive contexts.
India remains tentatively in the Russian orbit, continuing to purchase Russian, rather than American arms, despite strong overtures from the Biden administration. India also ignores calls to join in economic sanctions against Russia.
All this could change with a nuclear deployment by Russia. India is already inching away from the Russian orbit, and its main security consideration is against China. With China and Russia growing ever closer, and India’s geopolitical interests far more strongly aligning with the US and Japan, it doesn’t take much imagination to see a scenario where a nuclear offensive by Russia is the last straw that changes India’s security calculus.
None of this is lost on Putin, who continues to make strong overtures to India to maintain the relationship, as India’s economic importance to Russia is hard to overstate. Furthermore, losing India as a customer to Russian arms industry would be catastrophic—losing so many militay contracts would mean even fewer resources available for Russian arms manufactures to devote to R&D—not to mention the massive boost it would represent to the US arms industry.
So in conclusion
- Deploying tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus adds nothing to Russian tactical nuclear weapons capabitilies in the Russo-Ukrainian War.
- The Russian Army is incapable to exploiting the deployment of a tactical nuclear weapon due to the lack of protective equipment.
- A single tactical nuclear weapon is unlikely to represent enough force to alter the strategic calculus of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Multiple deployments would, but is highly likely to cause unacceptable (for Russia) diplomatic consequences.
- NATO entry in the War would be an unmitigated disaster for Russia, leading either to defeat or thermonuclear war that ends the human cilivization.
- Nuclear deployment is likely to futher alienate India, which may realign itself to the US/Japan, which would be a disaster for the Russian economy and arms industry.
For these reasons, we can be pretty sure that this is saber rattling by Putin and nothing more. Mostly because he doesn’t have many other cards to play.