The stated intention of Russia to base tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus was explained by Vladimir Putin last week. Several of the problems with Western reactions to Russian nuclear intimidation are highlighted by the surge of alarmist reportage on what this means.
Moscow may be surprised by how Putin’s remarks have been interpreted in the West, but it will undoubtedly be an extremely satisfying one. as a result of Russia’s previous “use” of nuclear weapons. Without actually using them, it has used them to great purpose to discourage the West from properly supporting Ukraine against Russia’s imperialist war by banking on false warnings about prospective nuclear strikes.
But by now, we ought to be wise enough to recognize the difference between what Putin has said and what Russia has done or is about to do.
Putin made no new plans official that hadn’t already been announced by the middle of 2022. The stated aim from last week wasn’t new; it merely included dates that we hadn’t heard previously.
Furthermore widely reported is that Putin’s action was a direct reaction to the UK’s declaration that it would give Ukraine tank ammunition containing depleted uranium. Putin had already declared that Russia would “act proportionately” to such a move, but it wasn’t the stated reason for the rehearsed plans on Saturday.
Putin specifically stated that this was a long-standing strategy “beyond the context of” the UK’s declaration in the complete transcript of his interview that Russian TV aired. To a doubt, Russia will want to use any plans to advance long-range missile weapons as effectively as possible to intimidate smaller parts of Europe.
There is precedence in the long-standing Russian plan to send Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, a province along the Baltic Sea, which every time it was revealed during the preceding decade sparked new worry among Western officials.
The West as a whole has too short of a memory to remember past military deployments in order to contextualize them, and Russia has long realized that military deployment mentions do not need to be recent in order to be successful.
As is customary, 24 hours after the “announcement” of Belarus receiving nuclear weapons, reality checks on the news begin to appear in those same media sites. But by then, the harm has already been done.
Russia’s long-term plan
I explain how Russia’s nuclear scare tactics have been extremely effective in stopping Ukraine from gaining the support it needs to win the war, and even in deterring certain Western leaders from supporting Ukraine to win it at all, in a paper published by the Chatham House think tank this week.
There are other reasons for this than what Putin has declared since the large-scale assault began in February 2022. It is the outcome of a protracted campaign that galvanized all of Russia’s propagandists, mouthpieces, influencers, and embedded influence agents throughout the West, all hammering home the same idea that opposing Russia will start a nuclear war.
The success of such campaign can be evaluated by the way the foundation of discussion surrounding Western policy has altered. Assuming that only Russia can use deterrence, the concept of escalation management and how to dissuade Russia has been replaced with a focus on preventing any escalation at all costs. Putin now has a free hand as a result.
Russian officials have used their access to nuclear weapons as a legal loophole to avoid paying for their actions in Ukraine. Moscow has received assistance in doing so from the information ecosystem that amplifies and exploits nuclear threats, which includes both real Western media outlets and Russia’s own network of propagandists, mouthpieces, and influencers.
The implications for Belarus
The ramifications for Belarus, a neighboring country, are currently more immediate. President Alexander Lukashenko was able to keep Belarus to some degree of independence for many years, particularly by resisting continuous Russian requests for an airbase there and avoiding outsourcing Belarus’ defense to its fictitious friend Russia.
After Belarus’s rigged elections in August 2020, everything changed. The Kremlin’s hold on Lukashenko’s nation grew tighter as he leaned more heavily on Russian help to maintain his position of authority.
That was a necessary need before Belarus agreed to let Moscow utilize its land facilities and airspace in February 2022 to attack Ukraine.
Despite their close coordination with Russian forces, Belarus’ armed forces have not publicly indicated a desire to fight for Moscow because doing so would expose their own nation to retaliation.
Also, reports that were widely circulated earlier this year that Russia would be launching a fresh assault on Ukraine from Belarusian territory are now widely disregarded because Russia has not assembled the necessary forces.
Nonetheless, drone attacks by the Ukrainian military on very valuable Belarusian assets demonstrate how Lukashenko’s use of Belarus as a rear support zone for Russian military operations has made his nation a target anyway. If and when it does, hosting Russian nuclear missiles puts Lukashenko’s nation at much greater risk.
Putin may eventually launch a nuclear strike even though Russia’s threats have thus far been shown to be unfounded if he believes, incorrectly, that the advantages of doing so exceed the drawbacks. This non-zero risk should be further decreased by a significant shift in how other nations approach convincing Russia against actually using nuclear weapons. Russia might genuinely feel that if it did deploy nuclear weapons, the repercussions would be under control, as I explain in the Chatham House paper.
That needs to change because it would cost far more to fail to stop Putin from engaging in nuclear adventurism than the pain and suffering that Russia has imposed on Ukraine.