However, despite Putin’s statements, the West hasn’t picked up any movements of tactical nuclear weapons outside of Russia.
More than 13 months into the war in Ukraine, and it doesn’t seem likely that the Russian military would be deploying any nuclear weapons, tactical or strategic, in Ukraine.
Tactical Nukes in Belarus?
The Ukrainian capital of Kyiv is within range of northern Belarus, and Putin’s announcement might have been intended to scare the Ukrainian population. However, dropping a nuke on a city, especially the capital, would contradict the accepted concept that considers tactical nuclear weapons strictly for military use on the battlefield.
Tactical nuclear weapons have a lower yield than a strategic nuke, which has the destructive power to take out an entire city. However, tactical nuclear weapons still pack quite a punch with an explosive power equivalent to around 5,000 tons of TNT.
Putin said that the Russian military would maintain complete control of the nuclear munitions while they are in Belarus.
However, the U.S. and West haven’t seen any signs yet to suggest that the Russian military is actually moving forward with Putin’s announcement. Nonetheless, it is easier to monitor the movement of strategic nuclear weapons than that of tactical nukes.
Tactical nuclear weapons are meant to give a military force on the ground a tactical and operational advantage.
By design, they are more limited than the strategic versions, but they can take many forms—and thus are harder to track—including short-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, artillery shells, mines, and even backpack bombs.
Although Belarus hasn’t directly entered the war in favor of Russia, it has been playing a key supporting role. The major initial push toward Kyiv at the start of the conflict was launched from Belarus. More recently, the Russian military has been using the country to stage ballistic and cruise missile strikes against Ukrainian urban centers and critical infrastructure. Moreover, the Belarussian military has assumed a key training function, training new Russian formations before they deploy to Ukraine, thus also freeing up more Russian soldiers for frontline service.
The Russian Nuclear Arsenal
Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. The Russian military fields about 6,400 nuclear warheads (for the sake of comparison, the U.S. military has approximately 5,800 nuclear warheads).
Managed by the Strategic Rocket Forces, a separate service of the Russian Armed Forces, the Russian nuclear arsenal is versatile and can be deployed from the ground, sea, and air.
Known as a nuclear triad, the capability to launch nuclear weapons with intercontinental ballistic missiles from the ground, with submarine-borne ballistic missiles from the sea, and with air-borne cruise missiles from the air increases the deterrence of a nation by ensuring a second strike even if an adversary attacks first with a surprise attack.
In terms of tactical nuclear weapons, it is not clear how many operational warheads the Russian military has.
Expert Biography: A 19FortyFive Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.