Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on 4 June that Moscow would station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. Russian state media reported that Russia will complete the construction of a storage facility for the nuclear weapons on 1 July. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has agreed to the deployment. Moscow would not transfer control of the nuclear arms to Minsk. Putin stressed that the move would not violate international agreements on nuclear non-proliferation. Russia has already stationed ten aircraft in Belarus capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons, Putin said.
Putin observed that the US had been deploying tactical nuclear weapons on the territories of its allies (NATO countries) in Europe for decades. Putin’s comments came as fighting continued around the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, which Russia has been trying to capture for months. The Russian forces’ assault on the town has “largely stalled,” according to the UK Defence Ministry. Ukraine has also suffered heavy casualties in its defence of the area. The UK Defence Ministry suggested that Moscow may be shifting its operational focus following “inconclusive results from its attempts to conduct a general offensive since January 2023,”.
The use of tactical nuclear weapons will not serve to ease fears about Russian aggression in Europe. Such weapons differ from strategic ones; they are designed for use on the battlefield, deploying the equivalent of only a few kilotons of TNT. These are small in comparison with the yields of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which were in the 15-20 kiloton range. However, tactical nuclear weapons are intended for immediate use, on a battlefield or against a military installation. As a result, there are concerns not just about the inherent dangers of nuclear weaponry, but also about the scope for misinterpretation and miscalculation when dealing with their use.
The backdrop to the heightened tension in Eastern Europe has been the increasing nationalism of Mr Putin, who has portrayed himself as the defender of Russian interests against encroaching Western imperialism. Despite accusations of Russian interference in Western elections on behalf of far-right parties, he has also fostered close links with populist groups in Europe in an attempt to destabilise the EU. It has also tried to increase its influence in Eastern Europe over the last few years by leveraging former soviet-era allies in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Armenia as it has sought to counter perceived moves to contain its power, and its allies in Syria and Iran have also helped to bolster its position in the Middle East.