Grasping at Nuclear Straws

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 25, 2023. (Photo by Gavriil Grigorov/ Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images)

President for life Vladimir Putin’s latest attempt to unsettle the West and hint at nuclear escalation—announcing the intended movement of Russian tactical nuclear warheads into Belarus at the request of his Mussolini-like ally Alexander Lukashenko—is risible. It represents a continuation of Putin’s efforts to manipulate Western fears (and the well-documented concerns of the Biden administration) about the escalation risks of continued military assistance to Ukraine. It is deeply unserious but nevertheless has gained some resonance in mainstream media and on Twitter. Let’s be clear about this farce.

First, Russia maintains a bloated arsenal of medium- and short-range nuclear weapons, thanks to Putin’s violations of agreements to drastically reduce that arsenal reached in the early 1990s between his predecessors and President George H.W. Bush. Putin’s forces do not need additional lodgments in Belarus to threaten all of Ukraine: They can already do so from their bases inside Russia. Moreover, Russia has long deployed dual capable SS-26 Iskander missiles in Belarus. Putin’s apparent intention to station nuclear warheads there merely makes explicit a “nuclear threat” that has been implicit for some time. It barely changes the status quo.

Second, an announcement made in Moscow by the Russian president on behalf of his Belarusian puppet hardly constitutes a joint decision. Deployment of Russian nuclear weapons would violate the current constitution of Belarus, which Lukashenko is now rushing to amend to provide a legal basis for such deployments. As the Belarusian democratic opposition has noted, this kabuki dance merely highlights the degree to which Belarus has become a satellite of Moscow—a “nuclear hostage.”

Third, Putin’s ostensible justification, that this announcement is a measured response to an announcement by the U.K. that it is preparing to provide Ukraine with depleted uranium rounds for tank-killing purposes just does not parse. These rounds, whose density allows them to pierce armor more effectively than conventional rounds, were used extensively in the first Gulf War and the Balkans wars of the 1990s. An IAEA assessment found that the “existence of depleted uranium residues dispersed in the environment does not pose a radiological hazard to the population of the affected regions.” The Russian president is manipulating Herthe word “uranium” to suggest that this form of assistance to Ukraine’s general-purpose forces is somehow “nuclear” in character. It is a cynical lie.

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