Vladimir Putin announced on Sunday that he would soon store a small number of Russian nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus. The European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs denounced it as “an irresponsible escalation and threat to European security.” The Ukrainian foreign affairs ministry called it “yet another provocative step by Putin’s criminal regime.”
But does it matter? Not really—though the move might backfire, if the West shrewdly exploits it.
The U.S. Defense Department’s calmer response was the appropriate one: “We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture.” Putin’s move is mainly rash and baffling. To the extent that talking about nukes near Ukraine’s borders is provocative, then, yes, it is also provocative, but entirely as show—not worthy of a fuss.
Here’s the thing: Russia has about 2,000 “tactical nuclear weapons,” meaning weapons of fairly short range and fairly low explosive yield, designed to be used against military targets on a battlefield. Some are missiles, some are bombs that can be dropped from airplanes; most are either in western Russia or could be moved there.
Putting another dozen or so on Belarusian soil gives Putin no advantage, nor does it alter the strategic situation in any way. It doesn’t put Russian nukes any closer to Ukraine than many already are. Nor would a nuclear weapon launched from Belarus exempt the Russian homeland from nuclear retaliation by the West. The weapon would be owned and launched by Russia. (Putin has made it clear he is not transferring control of these nukes to authorities in Minsk; Moscow would remain in control, just as Washington is in control of U.S. nuclear weapons on NATO bases.) As a result, Russia would be the target of a return blow.
Putin seemed to be doing this as a show, but the show is gratuitous: a way of keeping his nuclear threat front and center without doing anything that’s really dangerous.
For a moment, I wondered whether there might be some new subtlety in nuclear-deterrence strategy, or some strange jag in Russian military thinking, that might rebut my conclusion. So I emailed Sir Lawrence Freedman, professor emeritus of war studies at King’s College, London, and one of the preeminent thinkers and scholars on military strategy. He replied: “Deterrence theory is about risk assessment and is not scientific. But any nuke launched by Russia against humans would be treated the same whether launched from Russia or Belarus.”
“Think back to Cuba,” Freedman added, referring to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles on the island. President John F. Kennedy warned him that an attack on the United States from those Cuban bases—just 90 miles offshore—would be treated the same way as an attack from bases in Russia.
Perhaps, at some point, President Joe Biden should make the same point to Putin, just in case one of Putin’s all-too-clever advisers might have convinced him otherwise: Any Russian nuclear attack, whether launched from Russia or Belarus, would trigger very serious consequences.
Meanwhile, Putin might have simply caused himself a bit of very avoidable harm. Just four days earlier, at their gaudy Kremlin summit, he and Chinese leader Xi Jinping signed a joint declaration, noting, among other things, “All nuclear-weapon states should refrain from deploying nuclear weapons abroad.” This was meant as a slam against the United States, the only country that does base some of its nukes abroad—about 100 of them, which could be loaded onto bombers, in five NATO countries.
It might be a daring move for Putin to tear up one article of his new accord with his “dear friend” to the east, but, more than that, it is a stupid move. The joint statement—and the summit in every dimension—reflected, above all, Moscow’s distinctly junior role in this partnership, and Xi, like his fellow dictator, has no patience for insubordination from lesser, dependent powers.
Xi had already backpedaled from his description of China-Russia relations, just before the invasion of Ukraine, as an alliance of “no limits.” The phrase was not repeated at last week’s Kremlin summit; nor, despite Putin’s desperate hopes, did Xi issue any moral or material support for Russia’s stalled military.
Biden is keen (though, given political realities, not too keen) to find ways to calm down the tensions in U.S.-China relations, to explore avenues of common interests and to prevent conflicting interests from erupting into war. For one thing, it is not in U.S. interests to have unequivocally hostile relations with both Russia and China; for another, it’s a good thing, in its own right, to tamp down the chances of a big war in Asia. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was about to fly to Beijing for a meeting with Xi—a possible prelude to a summit with Biden—when the balloon crisis erupted. The meeting was canceled; tensions heated. But the crisis turned out to be much less fraught than many tried to portray it. A renewed overture is quite plausible in the near future.
In that overture, Biden could, among many other things, point to Putin’s flagrant—and, even more inexcusably, senseless—betrayal of the statement he had signed with Xi just days earlier. Xi seems to know well that his partnership with Putin holds risks, that its only value to China is the inconvenience it imposes on the United States and Europe, and that it might be worth dropping if the truly major powers—which certainly do not include Russia—devise some ways of working together.
If Biden and Xi can figure out a way to reintroduce diplomacy into their relationship, it may happen because Putin overstepped his boundaries and committed yet another self-destructive act. That might wind up being the main consequence of his nuclear gambit in Belarus.