Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko’s role in ending the June 24 military mutiny in Russia undoubtedly scored him points with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Still, Lukashenko should worry about another aspect of his closeness to Putin and Russia.
Russian foreign policy expert Sergey Karaganov recently called, in essence, for Russia to launch a nuclear war against the West. Fortunately, it appears more sober minds prevail in Moscow. However, should Karaganov’s idea gain traction in the Kremlin, Lukashenko should understand that he has made Belarus a prime nuclear target.
Karaganov, honorary chair of a Moscow think tank, wrote in mid-June that Russia needed to lower the threshold for use of nuclear weapons in order to break Western support for Ukraine. If the West did not back down, Karaganov opined that “we will have to hit [with nuclear weapons] a group of targets in a number of countries,” adding that, if Russia did not use “God’s weapon” for this, “not only may Russia perish, but most likely the whole of human civilization will end.”
Serious-minded analysts in Moscow quickly took issue with Karaganov’s argument. Asked about the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons as suggested by Karaganov, Putin said “I reject this. … First, we see no need to use it [a tactical nuclear strike]; and second, considering this, even as a possibility, factors into lowering the threshold for the use of such weapons.”
Over the past sixteen months since launching its massive invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has rattled the nuclear saber. But the Russian leadership appears to understand that actually using nuclear weapons would not change attitudes in Ukraine, which already regards this war as existential, and would lead to a harsh Western response. Moreover, such threats do not go down well with audiences that matter to Moscow, including in Beijing and New Delhi.
Nevertheless, on March 25, Putin announced that Russia would place tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. They will remain under Russian control but could be turned over for use by the Belarusian military. On June 16, Putin noted that the first tactical warheads had arrived in Belarus, with deployment of the rest to be completed by the end of the year.
Given the large number of Russian tactical nuclear arms and their possible deployment in the Kaliningrad exclave, nuclear weapons in Belarus do not materially increase the threat to Ukraine or NATO. While NATO might not like it, it has a weak basis for criticizing Russia, as the United States maintains nuclear arms on the territory of NATO members for their possible use.
This new development should worry Lukashenko. His agreement to host Russian nuclear arms makes his country a more likely target were a conflict to erupt between NATO and Russia.
And he already had grounds for serious concern.
NATO policy during much of the Cold War envisaged the use of nuclear weapons, either in response to first use by the Soviet military or deliberate escalation if NATO defenses failed at the conventional level. That posed a question: which targets in what countries to strike? Some allies favored nuclear strikes against targets in the Soviet Union. Others thought that too provocative and escalatory and argued instead for striking non-Soviet Warsaw Pact allies — East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Happily, NATO and the Soviet Union never ran the experiment.
If Russia were to use nuclear weapons now, a contemporary version of that debate within NATO could turn out badly for Minsk. All the former non-Soviet Warsaw Pact countries have joined NATO, and NATO members presumably would not favor nuclear attacks on their own territory. If the Russian military conducted a nuclear strike against NATO, the Kremlin certainly could not rule out the possibility of a NATO nuclear retaliatory strike against Russia itself, and that would weigh heavily on any Russian decision to use nuclear weapons in the first place. However, if striking Russian territory were deemed too incendiary, Lukashenko has offered up Belarus.
A war game in which I took part several years ago centered on a Russian invasion of the Baltic states. The Russian military used a single tactical nuclear weapon against U.S. Navy ships ferrying Marines across the Baltic Sea to help defend Latvia. The game participants favoring a nuclear response ruled out striking a target in Russia (too escalatory) and instead opted for a retaliatory nuclear attack on a Russian army brigade in — you guessed it — Belarus.
A Washington think tank organized that game. However, senior administration officials during the Obama administration in another war game came to a similar conclusion. In their game, Russia used a couple of tactical nuclear weapons. The players concluded there had to be a nuclear response, but striking Russia itself could be too provocative, so they used nuclear weapons against two military targets in Belarus.
This should be sobering for Lukashenko, who should pray that Karaganov’s bizarre idea has no real influence in Moscow. Lukashenko has quite likely ensured that, should Russia use tactical nuclear weapons, retaliatory ground zeros will be located in Belarus.