Why are concerns about use of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war on the rise again?
Concerns around Russia’s nuclear threats are rising yet again following Moscow’s latest moves in the Ukraine war – but should we be worried?
Russia has tried to use the West’s fear of nuclear war as a bargaining chip over the last 15 months, suggesting that the more support Ukraine receives from its allies, the more likely Moscow is to press the nuclear button.
Now, as Russia prepares to Ukraine’s highly-anticipated counteroffensive, it appears to be shifting its tactical nuclear weapons closer to the West.
Here’s what we know so far.
Russia has moved tactical nuclear weapons into Belarus
According to Russian state news agency TASS, Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko has confirmed the transfer of tactical nuclear weapons from Russia to Belarus has begun.
These are lower-yield weapons meant for the battlefield rather than widespread attacks on civilisations.
Russian president Vladimir Putin first announced this move back in March, saying Moscow would use the weapons if needed to defend its “territorial integrity”.
Russian reports suggest the transfer will be complete in just over a month, although it’s unclear how many nuclear weapons the country has.
The seemingly dramatic move has been painted as an act of self-defence by the Kremlin.
Defence minister Sergei Shoigu claimed Moscow was just responding “extremely sharp escalation of threats on the western borders of Russia and Belarus”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko at the Kremlin prior to the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 9, 2023.
Putin ally issues warning about ‘preemptive strike’
Russian news agencies also quoted the Security Council deputy chair, former president Dmitry Medvedev, as saying that Russia would not hesitate to launch a preemptive strike on the West if it gives Ukraine nuclear weapons.
Medvedev said: “There are irreversible laws of war. If it comes to nuclear weapons, there will have to be a preemptive strike.”
It comes after the UK agreed to send long-range Storm Shadow missiles to Ukraine earlier this month, which would allow the country to hit targets within Russia’s borders.
However, the West has not suggested it has any plans to send nuclear weapons to Ukraine any time soon, and has been very clear that it only wants to help the country defend itself.
How have countries reacted?
NATO said that it did not plan to change its own nuclear posture based on this action – although it warned that this rhetoric was still “dangerous and irresponsible”.
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno also condemned Russia’s decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, saying: “As the only country to have suffered atomic bombings during wartime, Japan never accepts Russia’s nuclear menace, let alone its use.”
The US used atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, in an effort to force Japan to surrender on the eastern front of World War 2.
Japan just placed additional sanctions on Moscow after the G7 summit last week saw countries promise to step up measures to punish Russia for the invasion of Ukraine.
Should we be worried?
The Institute for the Study of War think tank suggests that these weapons have not yet been transferred – and, if it does happen, this transfer is actually part of a “longstanding effort to cement Russia’s de facto military control over Belarus”.
Claiming that this is more about regional politics, the think tank said: “The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus requires both significant military infrastructure and Russian command and control over elements of the Belarusian Armed Forces.
“The Kremlin likely intends to use these requirements to further subordinate the Belarusian security sphere under Russia.”
It added that “their possible deployment is highly unlikely to presage any Russian escalation”.
The experts pointed out that Russia already had nuclear weapons which could hit any target which these tactical weapons being moved to Belarus could also hit – so it doesn’t give Moscow any particularly strong advantage on that front.
The think tank also suggested: “Putin is extraordinarily unlikely to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine or elsewhere.”
As the analysts pointed out back in September, Moscow’s “red lines for nuclear weapon use have already been crossed in this war several times over without any Russian nuclear escalation”.