Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, Russia’s eastern neighbor. Belarus also borders Ukraine’s north, and Putin wants Minsk to participate more openly in his war against their shared neighbor. Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has acted warily with respect to Russia’s invasion, but he depends on Russian assistance to stay in power, especially after Putin helped him fight off mass protests in 2020. Lukashenko probably has little choice but to assent to the deployment of Russian nukes on his country’s territory.
Belarus also borders NATO countries. Putin’s emplacement of these weapons is likely meant as an oblique threat to the West. It fits Putin’s regular habit of talking up Russian nuclear weapons to unnerve Ukraine’s Western supporters. The tactic makes sense. Russian conventional power has embarrassed itself in Ukraine. Its army has struggled, and most of the world had expected a quick victory for Russian forces. Putin invokes Russia’s nukes to compensate. He has a long history of such bravado.
Putin’s Western sympathizers, who have talked up the possibility of World War III for over a year, will argue again that this deployment means we are sliding toward a global conflagration. But they are probably wrong. It remains unclear how invoking nukes will help Putin win a limited conventional war.
Belarus Nukes: Ukraine Is Not Spiraling Into World War III
Putin’s Belarus move would be far more unnerving if World War III seemed imminent or likely, but it doesn’t. There is no obvious utility for nuclear weapons in the current war, which is being fought with conventional weapons in a contained space limited to eastern and southern Ukraine. This is why the WWIII hype from Putin-sympathetic voices in the West is so suspicious. The policy deduction of their analysis is to push Ukraine into concessions to end the war and stop a slide toward a nuclear exchange. Yet many of these analysts also want Putin to win the war, so their reasoning feels strongly motivated. They are using Western nuclear anxieties to push a Ukraine aid cut-off in pursuit of their real goal — a Putin victory,
Critically, there is no evidence that a world war, or even a Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine, is imminent. Empirically, Putin is not removing Russian weapons from safe storage, nor loading them onto strike platforms. China, Putin’s main ally in its effort to counter the growing sanctions on Russia’s economy, has said repeatedly that nuclear weapons must not be used in this conflict.
Analytically, it is hard to determine what Putin might strike with such powerful weapons. The risks involved in carrying out a nuclear strike are tremendous. A small nuclear strike in Ukraine would solidify Western support for Kyiv indefinitely. It would deeply alienate China and fire calls in much of the world for Putin to step down. A nuclear strike against NATO would be even riskier. NATO would declare war on Russia. There would be pressure to nuke Russia in return. World War III might well begin in this instance. Not because of the West, per Putin’s apologists, but because of Putin himself.
Russia Is Losing the War, But Putin Is Rational
Putin is highly unlikely to take such risks. Placing nuclear weapons in a country adjacent to NATO looks scary, and the media will play it up as such. But is not, in fact, a tipping point or escalatory step. Putin will not start a war with NATO that he cannot win conventionally and which might result in NATO nuclear strikes on Russia. Nor will NATO escalate against Russia in the nuclear realm. There is no strategic value to the West in doing that.
The vague notion that Russia and the West might somehow slide into a nuclear war is just not credible. States do not make casual decisions about something as momentous as nuclear war. Putin may be desperate, because he cannot figure out how to win in Ukraine. But he is not stupid or suicidal.
Even the use of smaller or tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine is highly unlikely. There is no large, concentrated military target in Ukraine commensurate with such a massive strike. Using nuclear weapons on the battlefield would create irradiated spaces that would be hard for Russia to conquer or control. What Russia needs in Ukraine is a breakthrough — an armored punch through Ukraine’s lines that opens up terrain to Russian maneuver and conquest. This is what could push Ukraine to concede. It is hard to see how nuking Ukrainian positions would facilitate that, even if the external consequences from NATO and China could somehow be contained.
No matter how many times Putin waves his nukes around for the Western press, they do not meaningfully change the course of war in Ukraine. There is no obvious way to use them for victory, and a nuclear strike on NATO would be suicidal. It is just another gimmick from an aging, paranoid dictator frustrated by a war he cannot win.