June 8, 2023
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Vladimir Putin has announced his intention to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, the neighboring ally from which he staged part of his invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. When the Russian president uses the word “nuclear”, the world pays attention to it and that seems to be a major reason why he said it.

As usual with Putin, the world should read the fine print and check the context. The weapons Putin plans to transfer to Belarus are not strategic nuclear weapons, those giant intercontinental ballistic missiles which, if fired, could end life on earth.

Tactical nukes are smaller, but powerful, and can be used on the battlefield. Putin has been threatening the possibility of nuclear war for a year, especially as his military operation in Ukraine falters.

This might help explain the context of Putin’s announcement. He’s a man with a lot of problems right now. Russian forces are bombarding Ukrainian cities from the air, but their ground war is not making much progress.

Aside from several new trade deals with China, Putin didn’t gain much from his summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. On the contrary, Russia now seems to be China’s junior partner.

Then there is the International Criminal Court and the arrest warrant it issued against Putin.

Now, about those fine print.

Putin blames his decision on the other side, saying he made it in response to the UK supplying Ukraine with anti-tank munitions containing depleted uranium.

This, Putin accuses, is a dangerous escalation. The UK denies this, explaining that the ammunition is only used for conventional purposes.

Putin says Russia is already building a storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons that will be ready by July. He gave no specific date when the tactical weapons would arrive.

Additionally, he notes, Russia already has 10 aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons, as well as several short-range Iskander missile systems that could carry nuclear weapons.

Significantly, the Russian leader has said he will not hand over control of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has long requested the weapons.

This strikes two former US diplomats with whom I spoke as odd.

Lukashenko, they point out, signed an agreement in 1994 to give up the strategic nuclear weapons that Belarus still possessed at the end of the Cold War.

Why would he decide to do this? A…

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