Russia creating pathway to nuclear escalation using Belarus

Putin exits plane after arriving in Belarus

Russia’s decision to base missiles in lackey state Belarus is “creating a pathway to nuclear escalation”, an expert in international security has warned. And Dr David Blagden believes Vladimir Putin is using his neighbour as a “staging post” for future Russian aggression – as well as conceding the possibility of him using other “client states” as places to site weapons in the future.

The academic, a Senior Lecturer in International Security at the Strategy and Security Institute (SSI) and in the Department of Politics at Exeter University, was speaking days after Putin announced Russia would station tactical nuclear weapons, claiming the move was triggered by Britain’s decision to provide Ukraine with armour-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium.

He added: “We are doing what they have been doing for decades, stationing them in certain allied countries, preparing the launch platforms and training their crews. We are going to do the same thing.”

Dr Blagden told Russia’s intention, at least in part, was to “spook” the West.

He explained: “It’s possible to be pursuing a calculated strategy that is itself reckless.

“All possessors of nuclear weapons are serious about using them, under grave enough circumstances, otherwise they wouldn’t bear the risks and costs of their acquisition/retention.

“But yes, creating additional pathways by which escalation could happen – which is an action that increases the risk of escalation (and therefore could be understood as “reckless”, on the basis that any additional nuclear escalation risk is dangerous) – is very much intended to increase perceived dangers from NATO’s perspective.

Moscow’s decision to try to conquer and annexe the whole of Ukraine in February 2022, rather than just continuing with its 2014 approach of Crimean annexation and limited military action to destabilise eastern Ukraine, was both calculated and reckless, and had “backfired accordingly”, Dr Blagden said.

Referring to Russia’s foisting of nuclear weapons in the nation led by staunch ally Alexander Lukashenko, Dr Bladgen added: “The Belarusian development is thus the latest step in a line of Russian measures intended to increase the perceived risk of nuclear weapons becoming part of the conflict.”

Nuclear-armed states had long issued what was known as ‘extended deterrence’ guarantees to their non-nuclear allies, he stressed, including the US, UK, and France on behalf of NATO’s 27 non-nuclear members.

He continued: “Nuclear-armed states have also forward-deployed nuclear weapons on allies’ territory in order to bolster the credibility of their own commitment to defend that ally, including at risk of nuclear war to themselves. US nuclear weapons are currently deployed on five non-nuclear NATO allies’ territory, for example.

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“So, at a minimum, Russia stationing its own nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil might simply be understood as a way of reinforcing extended deterrence over its weaker ally, ensuring that – if the war extended beyond Ukraine’s borders, either on Kyiv’s own initiative or through direct NATO intervention – Russia’s enemies would not think they could attack Belarus without risk of more serious escalation.

“But beyond that, it may also be intended to increase Belarus’s usefulness as a ‘staging post’ for Russian aggression (if Belarus is more dangerous to attack, because it contains Russian nuclear weapons, then it can behave more aggressively towards Ukraine and/or NATO with less fear of serious reprisals).”

More generally still, it increased the “potential routes to nuclear escalation” if the general NATO-Russia situation – either within Ukraine or in the wider region – deteriorated still further, Dr Blagden said.

He added: “From the perspective of a conventionally inferior Russia that has got itself into a costly war from which it will struggle to extract any benefit yet for which it is paying vast costs in blood and treasure, and with high perceived stakes for the regime, increasing such perceived nuclear escalatory risk in NATO members’ minds is precisely the point.”

Dr Blagden also it was possible, though unlikely, that Russia might seek to use other strategically aligned smaller countries in a similar way – for example Georgia and Kazakhstan.

He said: “Belarus has been by far the most supportive of Russia’s minor allies/clients, in terms of enabling the war (including using its geographical proximity to base/launch/supply Russian forces).

“Also, Belarus is much more geopolitically salient vis-a-vis NATO. Georgia isn’t really an uncontested Russian satellite in the same way – witness the public protests earlier this month, which forced the Georgian govt to back down with its Moscow-favoured ‘foreign agents’ bill.”

“Kazakhstan, meanwhile, “far less salient” to Russia’s relationship with NATO, because of its geography, he emphasised.

He said: “It was more salient when the US/UK were entangled in Afghanistan, and it was more salient when the USSR viewed the PRC as a threat – but now that Russia is an economically dependent ally of China, it’s less salient there too.

“So, in short: it’s a possibility, sure, but Belarus is both (a) more conducive and (b) more useful for this particular purpose.”

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