Vladimir Putin yesterday said that Russia is building a storage facility for nuclear weapons in Belarus, to be completed July 1. He was vague on when warheads would be delivered.
There’s a vigorous discussion on Twitter among experts trying to parse Putin’s meaning and intentions. There are a number of opinions, but I think some things are being left out. I won’t quote everyone who’s made a good point – I was more offline than on yesterday and couldn’t follow closely.
Some of the discussion centers around a sentence in the Putin-Xi statement released in conjunction with Xi’s visit to Moscow. That sentence urged avoiding nuclear threats and use in Russia’s war on Ukraine. Part of Putin’s and Xi’s normal rhetoric is a rejection of what they feel is US hegemony and a limit on their actions. That would include “the liberal international order” of treaties. They would like free rein to do whatever benefits their power. Conflicts with what has been said before are not an issue for them.
There also seems to be a difference from what was said a year or so ago about stationing nuclear weapons in Belarus. At that time, the nuclear weapons were the kind delivered by bombers. This round seems to include cruise missiles as well.
Putin’s statement should be taken seriously, and appropriate responses prepared. Presumably the military and the diplomatic corps are doing this to the extent justified by the confidence level of the intelligence analysis. But it is possible that not much will result, for many reasons.
Putin has resorted to nuclear threats when he needs to change the subject from how badly things are going for Russia in Ukraine. Prigozhin has been harassing him, and things are not going well in Bakhmut. Ukraine is preparing for a spring offensive. Whether Russia has started its offensive is not clear, which is bad news for an offensive. It’s possible President Alexander Lukashenko is pressuring Putin. The Tsar of All The Russias must show both dominance over and support for White Russia.
Putin also says stuff. Several years back, he touted world-changing weapons, of which we have seen little to nothing. The nuclear-powered, nuclear-weapon-carrying Burevestnik cruise missile exploded and killed seven of the people working on it. Glimpses are claimed of the Status-6 nuclear-powered undersea drone capable of producing a radioactive tidal wave that would destroy the east coast of the US, but otherwise nothing. Kim Jong Un even saw through that and claimed last week that he had one of his own. If Americans were so credulous of Russian claims, why not give it a try?
The progress (or not) of building a storage facility can be monitored by satellite and presumably those other very good sources the US government seems to have.
On the other hand, with offers of tanks and planes from NATO countries to Ukraine reported every day, Putin has to say something. Reports that Russia is pulling World War II vintage T-54 tanks out of storage do not counter reports of Poland sending MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine.
Yes, this is an escalation on Putin’s part, but the NATO countries have been escalating their support for Ukraine too. And Ukraine hit targets near Crimea last week.
The July 1 date might be worth considering in terms of the war. By then, the spring offensives will be over. Perhaps one side or the other will come to a decision to negotiate. The stationing of nuclear weapons in Belarus could be part of a negotiation. Or it could be that Putin would like to frighten his opponents into surrendering before his ammunition runs out.
What does all this mean? It means that the US does not yet have to do more than warn Putin against nuclear deployments beyond what is current, and it appears that Joe Biden doesn’t think that is necessary yet. It also means that we can’t ignore that Putin will escalate in response to perceived Ukrainian escalation, and that nuclear weapons are part of his toolbox.
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner