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Recently (May 2023) Russia decided to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus. This has been reported in many sources. At least Russia represents this as a serious escalation, something that they were "forced to do", even if it is not very clear how this would help in the Ukraine war.

As I understand, in these days there are many nuclear-capable rockets capable of striking anywhere across the globe. Or, definitely, there are a lot of them capable of taking off in Russia and landing anywhere in Europe. It is unlikely possible to say that with deploying rockets in Belarus now V. Putin will be able to reach any target that is currently too far to be accessible. And Ukraine even has a shared border with Russia.

In 1962, there has been a Cuban crisis, after Soviet Union deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba. But at this time ICBMs were not good enough yet for striking anywhere in USA. As I understand, in these days this is no longer the case.

Why care then? Of course, a threat of nuclear war is nothing good, but does deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus make anything notably worse?

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    It doesn't make Belo-Russia a nuclear country though. The weapons are still under Russian control. If anything it makes Belo-Russia a vassal of Russia. May 29, 2023 at 13:23
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    @Trilarion True, but we could say the same for Germany then. There are US nukes in Germany, and they are indeed under US control. They can only be launched from german planes though. I don't know what are the conditions from the Belarus agreement.
    – Rekesoft
    May 30, 2023 at 6:55
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    @Rekesoft Yes, but if Scholz gets voted out of office, there's very little chance that the US will have their military re-install him. There are credible claims that Lukashenko has in fact lost election(s), and the presence of Russian troops is a clear threat against any attempt by the Belarussian people to do anything about it. If Lukashenko were overthrown, Russia would almost certainly re-install him. May 31, 2023 at 13:30
  • @Rekesoft Difference is Germany is a treaty partner that allows those nuclear weapons, Minsk has them forced upon themselves.
    – jwenting
    Jun 1, 2023 at 15:20
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    @jwentig Why do you talk about Germany and Minsk as if they were some girls you were hanging out with last saturday? I'd like to see what is the opinion of the governments of both countries, and a poll among their citizens, about nukes on their land.
    – Rekesoft
    Jun 2, 2023 at 7:22

6 Answers 6

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Why location matters in general, but not here

The issue of where exactly countries station their nukes has been very contentious in the past. The reason isn't so much range, but travel time. The closer the nuke is stationed to the target, the faster it can reach it, thereby cutting down the available time for the victim to act. Get enough nukes sufficiently close to your enemy, and you might be able to take out almost all of his nukes before the "launch detected - retaliation launch authorized - retaliation launch happens" sequence can take place.

However, this isn't really an issue here. Russia could get even closer to Europe by putting their stuff in Kaliningrad. Even more important, the retaliation Russia needs to worry about when nuking something in Europe is from the US anyway.

Why the "they made us do it" rhetoric

Russia is a signatory to the "Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons", which is all about NOT giving nukes to non-nuclear powers such as Belarus. Now Russia could have copied the arrangement between the US and Germany regarding nukes, but I think this would have been beside the point (see below). Thus, blaming the West for forcing their hand is the natural justification.

What this accomplishes

By giving nukes to Belarus, Russia signals that they are not willing to let Belarus slip from her grasp. Between Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya's convincing claim to have won the 2020 elections, the curious non-participation of the Belarusian army in the war against Ukraine, and the efforts of Belarusians to both sabotage the transit of Russian military equipment through Belarus and to fight as volunteers on the Ukranian side, change in Belarus seems possible.

A country having nukes is a factor for the international community to prefer its stability over other factors. Also, Russian doctrine on nuclear first strikes is very restrictive. If Lukaschenko has his own nukes, he can threaten people with it without Russia having to adjust its official doctrine.

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    Yeah, I see that as the main "gains". And especially in the context of Lukashenko's recent health rumors. If he croaks, even the West will prefer/understand Russian intervention to ensure stability of wandering nukes. But I doubt Lu. "has his own nukes", in the sense that launch codes are still RU's only and it's also a way to signal risks to Western electorates. May 29, 2023 at 14:49
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    Re "Russia could ... put[ting] their stuff in Kaliningrad". That is more than a hypothetical, according to reports from 2018. Newsweek: "In 2018, Russia reportedly sent nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad [...]". Guardian: "Russia appears to have upgraded a nuclear weapons storage bunker in its Kaliningrad enclave [..]".
    – njuffa
    May 29, 2023 at 16:41
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    So, basically, this is Russia saying "stop destabilizing Belarus"? The West is undoubtedly trying to undermine the current Belarussian government by supporting or even funding its opposition, this doesn't even need to be a conspiracy theory, they would be stupid not to do so. Just like they did in Ukraine when it had a pro-russian government back before the "Euromaidan". Of course they likely didn't organize or start the revolution, but they sure supported it.
    – vsz
    May 29, 2023 at 21:31
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    @vsz I'm not sure if "The West" is the only or even the primary addressant here. For example, those in the Belarussian army questioning whether they really want their future to be tied to Russia/Putin/Lukaschenka might be more important.
    – Arno
    May 29, 2023 at 22:09
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    I'm curious about "Even more important, the retaliation Russia needs to worry about when nuking something in Europe is from the US anyway". That's going to be a concern, but I'd imagine the 300+ deployed nuclear warheads held by two European nations wouldn't be irrelevant and would arrive a lot sooner. With nuclear war, once you're looking at more than about ten - even for a country the size of Russia - it's all pretty academic. What am I missing? May 31, 2023 at 9:14
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A few off-the-cuff considerations:

  • Deploying rockets closer to Europe makes it easier to hit any target - or at least it can be hit with simpler technology.
  • It also makes it difficult to intercept the rocket (requires better technology.)
  • Likewise, spreading rockets over a larger space makes tracking and intercepting them harder.
  • Finally, this also makes Belarus a nuclear-armed country with potentially unpredictable consequences in case of it being attacked or if there is a revolution and subsequent chaos.

Remark
This answer has been criticized in the comments for supposed (but hard to prove) irrelevance of the first couple of points... but the last point was left largely ignored and seems to have remained unmentioned so far in the other answers as well: the possibility of the government change in Belarus. If a pro-western government comes to power, Belarus would find itself in the same situation, in which Ukraine had found itself in the wake of the collapse of the USSR, and which led to the signing of the Budapest memorandum, intimately related to the current events in Ukraine (e.g., see this discussion.) In other words Putin threatens to recreate the challenge that the West has not very successfully dealt with in Ukraine, and invites rehashing the 30 years of western policies in eastern Europe.

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    @Trilarion I don't think it is a big secret, but Belarus borders Poland, Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania - three of which are NATO and EU members. So it is rather firing a shell across the border vs. firing a rocket from a few hundred kilometers. Of course, Russia has Kaliningrad, but it is rather easily controlled and does not have land link to the Russian mainland. May 29, 2023 at 13:36
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    In the general context of over-provision of nukes and very limited interception capabilities by both sides these look like very marginal gains. No, the aims are more on the political than military side. May 29, 2023 at 14:53
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Political aims should not be excluded - but this means guessing the intentions, which is off topic. On the other hand, small military details may well turn out decisive in a war... or negotiations. The superpower confrontations and strategic decisions that we learn about in mainstream discourse or school textbooks are really conceptualized as such only post-hoc - e.g., WW2 or Cold War have literally never happened - these were accumulation on many small conflicts, battles, decisions, etc. May 29, 2023 at 14:59
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Initially, I didn't want to post this as an answer, because I do not want to spend time on looking for facts to support my assertions. However, claiming that there is no military advantage whatsoever is, at the minimum, as unsupported a claim as my assertions... and at maximum is trying to provide evidence of absence. May 29, 2023 at 15:10
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica As NATO becomes more and more involved in the war, a direct attack on Russia is as improbable as ever... but one on Belarus is not. Having some nukes on Belarus is like having some nukes on Germany: it doesn't really add anything to the nuclear apocallypse, but it makes clear the point that an attack on those countries will escalate the war to nuclear.
    – Rekesoft
    May 30, 2023 at 7:00
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That's the classical game theoretic "burning bridge" strategy.

Let's say there are no Russian nukes in Belarus and someone would try to attack Belarus or to push it away from Russia's sphere of influence. In such case, Russia would have options to either fight back or do nothing, and it is quite possible that second option would be choosen. So someone might indeed decide it would be worth to pull this out.

At the same time with nukes deployed it would be too costly for Russia not to respond, so noone would try to either attack Belarus or push it away from Russia's sphere of influence.

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I believe that the military effects of any deployment take third place in the Russian reasoning, less important than messaging to the Western 'elites' and general public.

I could be wrong on that, just as I believed too long that the ground force deployments one and a half year ago were posturing, but I see no tangible military benefit for a Russian forward deployment. The mirror-image NATO nuclear sharing collects policy input from some non-nuclear NATO members, and spreads the responsibility for decisions to them. I don't see a similar outcome between Russia and Belarus.

Policy 'elites' would note the strong signal if weapons actually move and there is not just talk.

Early in the Cold War, there was a phase of rapid expansion of nuclear arsenals. The US and the Soviet Union deployed tens of thousands of them. The UK, France and China became nuclear powers and deployed hundreds (not enough for MAD, but enough 'to matter' in the decisionmaking of any rational government).

Later in the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union decided to stabilize the arms race. They agreed to limits on total numbers, on types of weapons, on deployment locations, on readiness.

With the fall of Communism, the US and Russia agreed to much more significant cuts in the numbers, locations, etc. For years, it looked as if the size of the arsenals was on a downward trajectory. The deployment concepts were less to consider nukes actually employable, and more to see them as an insurance policy. A move away from 'tactical' doctrine, towards an exclusively 'geostrategic' one.

In recent years, this trend has been reversed. Various US administrations have looked at hardened bunker-busters, for instance, and Russia wrote a nuclear doctrine which envisions nuclear use against an overwhelming conventional attack. (NATO used to have a similar doctrine, but people thought it had been 'overcome' with the post-Cold-War agreements. It isn't absolute capabilites, but the direction of change and rate of change which matter.)

But the main reason is this:

The audience is not nuclear strategists. It is a public which is ill informed about nuclear matters.

And because it is ill informed, yet concerned, the public is going to overreact to each new nuclear threat until repetition wears it out.

Back during the Cold War, the joke was that to learn about nuclear arsenals, one could ask a general or a peace activist. The general would know exactly but not tell, the peace activist would have a pretty good idea and tell you. This was a pre-internet era, when one could not google things like Reflex Action or SIOP. Yet peace activists tried to learn and understand what it means.

Most people today simply have no idea what nuclear weapons mean. Remember the recent G7 summit in Hiroshima? Not a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and it has been green and habitable for many years. So Russia has 'media figures' talk about nukes, and it has officials talk about nukes, all to raise anxiety and to reduce Western support for Ukraine. But they cannot simply repeat the same words over and over again, so they have to tell something new.

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    I'm slightly confused by this answer. You seem to say Russian did it to make it into the news? May 29, 2023 at 13:32
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    @Trilarion, I'm saying that the more common Russian threats don't excite the Western public as much as the first dozen times, so they have to escalate. A militarily pointless redeployment of actual hardware is filling the headlines again, where talk show hosts talking about nuclear war don't.
    – o.m.
    May 29, 2023 at 16:42
  • I did google SIOP but can't say I understand its importance in your answer. Is it just a random acronym you put there to show that just about anything can be easily found online? I also don't understand what you are trying to say about Hiroshima. Are you saying that Hiroshima now demonstrates that people are overly scared of nuclear weapons or that seeing it now makes them underestimate nukes?
    – Pooks
    May 30, 2023 at 2:22
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    @Pooks, my point is that, in my estimation, the public 40 years ago was much more informed about nuclear matters than today, which leads some of those today to uninformed panic. Hundreds of megaton-range bombs would be a global disaster. A single tactical weapon would be a local disaster. The distinction has been lost.
    – o.m.
    May 30, 2023 at 3:59
  • Of course, it’s all a gamble by the Russians. It’s quite possible that deploying more weapons will only lead the general public to demand further escalation of the war. May 30, 2023 at 7:03
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The target is Belarus itself

Belarus is increasingly unstable, the fear is that the unrest by the local population gets stronger. Deploying nuclear weapons is an excuse to setup new bases or enlarge existing ones and reinforce the presence of the Russian Army.

The Journalist and Western politicians who represent it as an escalation towards the West effectively do the Russians a favour because they make more credible the cover up. I cannot say whether this is done on purpose or not. But the for the Western countries this changes very little.

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    You make a good point (except for the last line - it does matter very much where Russian nukes are present because then you have to factor that too in all your military and political strategy).
    – sfxedit
    May 30, 2023 at 11:19
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Let me speak from my hart.

Any war is logistics. You need to deliver a striking element into the body of the enemy. In this case, the enemy must not escape or parry your strike. Consider a nuclear bomb. The first use is to parachute it off the plane. It should be noted that a nuclear bomb does not explode on impact. There’s a very complex mechanism inside that should work. Air defense systems have evolved very much since World War II. and now you can’t use the plane. Let’s put the bomb on the missile. Now we have two problems. We need to explain the rocket to where to fly. and we need to tell the mechanism when to make the explosion. Now I turned to 1962 and I think no one could have organized a real nuclear war. Rather, it would have been a real nuclear suicide. And at the same time, air defense still cannot shoot down missiles effectively.

Fast forward to 1990. Collapse of the Soviet Union. Air Defense still does not know how to shoot down missiles. But with the help of GPS we have learned to explain rockets where to fly. That is, a large number of missiles near the enemy’s border is still a profitable strategy. And now, fast forward to 2023. Over the past ten years, microcontroller and programming technologies have made a revolutionary leap. you can buy a chip for 20 euros and program it so that the missile writes a offensive word before hitting the target. But along with this, you can put the same chip in an air defense missile. And the latest attacks on Kiev have shown the effectiveness of modern air defense systems. And they have given a lot of information and invaluable experience to developers. In fact, the closer your nuclear missile gets, the easier it is to locate and monitor it.

But here the Russian old man comes in. Old men do not like new things. But they remember well how afraid the old one was. And they try to intimidate the whole world with the old methods. Of course no one will tell the old man that the nuclear stem has long faded. In our country there is such a saying. Strike your own that strangers are afraid. Sorry for my English. It's not my native language. And I have no time for quality translate. (I just ran the text through the translator). And from your answers, you have no idea what it’s like to live in a slave country. I envy you a little bit))

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    how does it answering the question?
    – convert
    May 29, 2023 at 22:09
  • Maybe the answer could be made more clear and more compact in order to be received better. What is the main point you want to make? It seems you want to say that Russia might fear better air interception capabilities. May 30, 2023 at 6:02

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