On June 25, 2022, during a meeting between Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin, it was announced that in response to NATO aircraft practicing nuclear strikes against Belarus, Russia would assist in preparing the Belarusian Air Force for the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Moreover, if Lukashenka suggested using Su-30SM heavy fighters for these purposes, then Putin suggested using Su-25 attack aircraft.
Putin also said that within a few months Belarus will receive Russian Iskander-M operational-tactical missile systems. At the same time, the Russian ruler emphasized that they can use missile weapons in both conventional and nuclear weapons.
Both Putin and Lukashenka stressed that the issue of transferring or storing Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus is not yet being discussed.
Tactical nuclear weapons
Tactical nuclear weapons (hereinafter referred to as TNW) are not particularly regulated by international law, unlike strategic nuclear weapons. As a result of which:
-There is no clear definition of what TNW is. There are criteria for charge power, range, and carrier platforms. But this is not enough for a clear definition.
— There are no obligations of the nuclear powers in terms of reducing or limiting the development, production and stockpiling of tactical nuclear weapons. All statements about the reduction of tactical nuclear weapons in recent decades have been in the nature of a unilateral political act by the nuclear powers. Which were based not only on philanthropy, but also on the fact that a significant part of the weapons was produced in the 60s and became simply outdated. Accordingly, there is no international system for monitoring the quantity and condition of the arsenals of these weapons.
— As a result, there is no complete and reliable information about the number of weapons that are considered to be tactical, about their technical parameters, about which part of them is ready for use, and which part is disassembled and how quickly it can be brought into a usable state.
-Because of the above stated facts, there is no complete understanding of what programs for the modernization of existing and the development of new types of tactical nuclear weapons are carried out by the nuclear powers and how successful they are.
It is worth noting that Putin emphasized the fact that Belarus has a significant number of Su-25 attack aircraft. Consequently, the likelihood of a mistake of the Russian ruler, who could confuse the Su-25 with the Su-30SM (there are 4 of them in Belarus) is minimal.
If we are talking about air bombs, then it is not clear what kind of modernization is required. Although we have no idea about the current Russian arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, but in the 1950s and 1960s, a line of nuclear bombs weighing up to 500 kg was developed and put into production in the USSR. It can be assumed that Russia retains the competence and potential for the production of weapons of similar weight and size characteristics.
Soviet atomic bomb PH-28
The fact that the Su-25 attack aircraft was not previously considered as a carrier of nuclear weapons (air bombs) is rather a consequence of the tactics of its use (battlefield aircraft, “flying tank”).
But returning to the previous point, we can assume that we are not talking about free-falling ammunition. Putin could have thought about guided nuclear bombs or short-range air-to-surface missiles of a post-Soviet design. IN order to use them, serious modification of the Belarusian Su-25s may be required. Which cannot be carried out at the Belarusian aircraft repair plants. Retraining of flight and technical personnel will be necessary as well.
But here we must also understand that the transfer of Russian nuclear weapons to the Belarusian Air Force is possible only if their carriers are transferred under Russian command.
And one more feature: there is no information that Russia considers its own Su-25 attack aircraft as carriers of nuclear weapons. Why, then, did Putin become interested in Belarusians in this role?
Official Minsk has been cherishing hopes of getting Iskanders since 2007. And Putin’s statements about the transfer of this missile system to the Belarusian authorities within several months should not be taken literally, until clear deadlines for the execution of the deal are announced.
Assertions that there will be no real transfer of the Iskanders, that Russian troops will simply be “covered up” with a different flag, should be taken with skepticism. It is not clear why Russia would try to present their units as foreign ones, and why the official Minsk would do it.
Putin’s statements that the Iskander can use aeroballistic and cruise missiles in vigorous equipment are not new. Belarus inherited from the USSR a number of cannon artillery systems and Tochka-U missile systems, which can also use tactical nuclear weapons.
The interesting point in this case could be Moscow’s refusal to adhere to the restrictions of the Missile Technology Control Regime in the event of the transfer of missiles with a range of more than 300 km to Minsk.
On the probable status of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus
The issue of transferring nuclear warheads to the Lukashenka regime is not on the agenda. And it won’t be even discussed.
For the placement of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, serious organizational and technical measures will be required to equip the storage site. It is obvious that the maintenance of nuclear warheads will be carried out by Russian specialists.
It will be necessary to conclude an additional agreement on the status of this object. By virtue of the requirements of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, it can only be extraterritorial. Those. we should talk about creating a full-fledged (from the legislational point of view, at least) Russian military base in Belarus. The official Minsk does not agree to this.
Naturally, the TNW storage facility in Belarus will become one of the primary targets for destruction (perhaps even preventive) in the event of a regional war. Even if Minsk declares its neutrality.
The statements made by Putin and Lukashenka are a pre-staged political game and should be considered in a political context. Against the background of the G7 leaders’ meeting taking place simultaneously and the upcoming NATO summit, the Kremlin was demonstrating its readiness and ability for further escalation. Large-scale missile attacks against Ukraine and an initiative similar to the NATO Nuclear sharing are instruments of political pressure on the West.
The use of Belarusian territory and airspace to attack Ukraine on the same day that Lukashenka initiated allowing the Belarusian Air Force to use Russian tactical nuclear weapons is a demonstration by the Kremlin of the complete merging of the position of the Lukashenka regime with the Russian one on regional security issues. Which means the absence of some kind of independent policy of Belarus from Russia in this area.
At the same time, one should not expect the launch of the Russian analogue of Nuclear sharing yet:
— The fact that Putin, instead of the obviously pre-agreed adaptation of the Belarusian Su-30 fighters, suddenly offered Su-25 attack aircraft to Lukashenka rather indicates an unwillingness to increase the real competence of his formal ally in this area. Here one should note that nothing is known about any program of adaptation of the Russian Su-25 for being used as carriers of tactical nuclear weapons. This allows Russia to delay the adaptation / certification of Belarusian aircraft for this role indefinitely under the pretext of the need to resolve new technical issues.
— The delivery of the Iskander to Belarus is the delivery of missile systems — the carriers of the nuclear weapons, not nuclear weapons themselves. In this area, the level of threats is approximately the same as in the case of the supply of Iskanders to Armenia or Algeria. At least until the moment when the storage of Russian tactical nuclear weapons begins in Belarus.
— There is a fairly clear understanding in Moscow that the acquisition of competencies in the field of nuclear weapons or their permanent deployment in Belarus will be used by the official Minsk for its own game with the West. It is unlikely that Putin is ready to make such a gift to his formal ally.