Vladimir Putin last week gave details of Russia’s stated intent to base tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. The flurry of alarmist reporting on what this meant highlights much of what is wrong with Western responses to Russian nuclear intimidation.
How Putin’s words have been spun in the West may be a surprise to Moscow — but there’s no doubt it will be a highly gratifying one. Because Russia has already “used” nuclear weapons. It’s used them highly successfully without firing them, by trading on empty threats about potential nuclear strikes to very effectively deter the West from fully supporting Ukraine against Russia’s imperialist war.
By now though, we should have learned not to confuse what Putin has said with what Russia has done or is about to do.
Putin didn’t announce any plans that had not already been declared in the middle of 2022. Last week’s stated intention wasn’t new — it just had dates attached to it that we had not heard before.
Similarly, it’s been widely reported that Putin took this step in direct response to the UK’s announcement that it would be providing Ukraine with tank shells containing depleted uranium. While Putin previously said Russia would “respond accordingly” to such a move, that wasn’t the stated trigger in Saturday’s rehashed plans.
In the full version of his interview released by Russian TV, Putin explicitly said that this was a long-standing plan “outside the context of” the UK’s announcement.
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There’s no doubt that Russia will be keen to extract maximum intimidatory potential from any plans to move long-range missile systems forward, so they can threaten larger areas of Europe.
There’s a precedent in Russia’s long-running program for deploying Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad (a Russian province along the Baltic coast) — which caused fresh alarm among Western politicians throughout the previous decade every time it was announced.
Russia learned long ago that mentions of military deployments do not need to be new to be effective, and they will consistently trigger a highly gratifying wave of commentary from a collective West that has too short a memory to place them in context.
With the “announcement” of nuclear weapons to Belarus too, as often happens, 24 hours later reality checks on the reporting start to emerge in those same media outlets. But by that time the damage is done.
In a report released by the Chatham House international affairs think-tank this week, I lay out how Russia’s nuclear scare tactics have been enormously successful in preventing Ukraine from receiving the help it needs to win the war — and even in preventing some Western leaders from backing Ukraine to win it at all.
That’s not just because of what Putin has said since the full-scale invasion started in February 2022. It’s the result of a long-running campaign that has mobilized all of Russia’s propagandists, influencers, mouthpieces and embedded agents of influence across the West, all driving home the single message that Russia should not be opposed because that will trigger nuclear war.
That campaign’s success can be measured by the way the whole basis of the conversation in Western policy has changed. The idea of escalation management, and how to deter Russia, has been replaced with prioritizing avoiding escalation altogether based on the assumption that it is only Russia that can practice deterrence.
The result is a free hand for Putin.
Russia has used its nuclear weapons as a get out of jail free card to escape the consequences of its actions in Ukraine. It’s been aided in doing so by the information ecosystem that amplifies and plays on nuclear threats — including not only Russia’s own network of propagandists, mouthpieces and influencers, but also genuine Western media outlets.
For now, the more immediate implications are for neighboring Belarus. For years President Alexander Lukashenko succeeded in maintaining a degree of independence, and in particular to avoid outsourcing Belarus’s defense to its notional ally Russia — for instance, by fending off persistent Russian demands for an airbase there.
That all changed after Belarus’s fraudulent elections in August 2020. Lukashenko leaning harder on Russian support for staying in power meant the Kremlin’s grip tightened on his country.
That was an essential precondition for Belarus allowing its land facilities and airspace to be used by Russia for attacks on Ukraine in February 2022.
Belarus’s armed forces, despite their close cooperation with those of Russia, have shown no evident inclination to go to war for Moscow as this would expose their own country to reprisals.
And widespread reporting earlier this year that Russia might be preparing a new attack on Ukraine from Belarusian territory is now widely discounted as Russia has not put the forces in place to do so.
But Ukrainian drone strikes on high-value assets within Belarus show how Lukashenko providing a rear support area for Russian military operations has made his country a target all the same. Hosting Russian nuclear missiles — if and when it happens — means Lukashenko is exposing his country to even greater risk.
Although Russia’s threats so far have been proven empty, there is still a non-zero chance that Putin might eventually order a nuclear strike if he perceives — mistakenly — that the benefits of doing so outweigh the consequences.
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That non-zero chance should be reduced still further by a substantial change in how other countries aim to dissuade Russia from considering actual nuclear use. As I detail in the Chatham House report, Russia could well believe that if it did use nuclear weapons, the consequences would be manageable.
That needs to change, because for all the horror and tragedy that Russia has inflicted on Ukraine, a similar failure to deter Putin if he chose to embark on nuclear adventurism would come at a vastly higher cost.