April 13. 2024. 5:50

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The Brief — Nuclear poker

Reading Vladimir Putin’s mind has become a full-time job for strategists and analysts. The question of the day is: What is behind the Russian president’s announced intention to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus?

Putin made the announcement during a staged journalistic interview, presenting the Russian move as a reaction to Britain’s announcement that it would supply Ukraine with ammunition containing depleted uranium. The heavy metal is used in weapons because it can penetrate tanks and armour more easily.

Although ‘uranium’ often relates to nuclear energy, a missile with a core made of depleted uranium is not a nuclear weapon. Therefore, to justify in such a way an act of nuclear proliferation – deploying nuclear weapons to another country – is a logic that may do the trick only with the Russian audience.

We can deduce that Putin only sought a pretext to announce a long-planned relocation of Russian tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, where Russia had already deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missile systems.

Of course, the move was planned: A referendum in Belarus on 26 February approved a new constitution ditching the country’s non-nuclear status.

Putin used another argument that probably only Russian propaganda finds convincing. He said that the US had long ago stationed nuclear weapons with its allies, in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey, and said Russia was now basically doing the same with its ally Belarus.

The US nuclear weapons stored in a number of NATO countries since the 1950s are a legacy of the Cold War, while the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) of 2017, effective from January 2022, forbids the hosting of nuclear weapons by a non-nuclear power, such as Belarus.

While the weaknesses of Putin’s arguments are obvious, the question remains – what is his goal with this nuclear proliferation?

Possibly, the ultimate objective is not military but propagandistic. From his youth in the Soviet Union, Putin remembers the Euromissiles crisis of 1977- 1987, which generated powerful pro-peace and anti-nuclear movements across Western Europe.

Middle-range missiles or tactical weapons are the same – they are made to hit targets in Europe, while strategic nuclear missiles were meant to ensure containment between Moscow and Washington.

Putin probably expects NATO to respond to the new challenge from Belarus by announcing the deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons in member countries closer to Russia, hoping such a development would set public opinion on fire.

But why would the West make such a move? There are probably Russian tactical nuclear weapons in the Kaliningrad exclave already, but NATO hasn’t overreacted.

After Putin’s “interview”, Russian propagandists may be eagerly awaiting bellicose counter-reaction from Western politicians, but to no avail.

What is also interesting is that Putin made the announcement about the nukes in Belarus despite having issued a joint statement with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping that called for “stopping all moves that lead to tensions”.

Either Putin totally disregards Xi, which we don’t believe, or he told him that “this is only a diversion, don’t pay attention”.

Of all Putin’s poker hands, ranked from best to worst, this one looks really bad. And this is likely a symptom that his options are running low.

But the clear loser from Putin’s increasingly erratic strategies will be Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, because of the new sanctions the West will slap on him fast.

The Roundup

President Emmanuel Macron summoned government ministers for a crisis meeting on Monday (27 March, as tensions ran high a day before another major day of strikes and protests against his pension reforms.

Kazakhstan said on Monday (27 March) it would require exporters to file additional documents when sending goods to Russia, following reports that Russian companies have been using local intermediaries to bypass Western sanctions.

The European Commission is mulling a possible withdrawal of its proposal for a €500 million short-term joint defence procurement incentive for Ukraine, citing delayed negotiations and a lack of legal ground, EURACTIV has learned.

The European Commission will listen to the version of Libyan partners about the incident that occurred with the NGO SOS Mediterranee boat Ocean Viking on Saturday (25 March), Commission spokesperson Peter Stano told the press on Monday.

Don’t miss this opinion on fighting the sexual abuse of children that Hollywood star Ashton Kutcher contributed exclusively to EURACTIV.

Look out for…

  • Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans receives members of European Steel Association.
  • Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis co-chairs with Financial Stability Commissioner Mairead McGuinness Roundtable on Digital Euro.
  • Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides delivers opening speech at International Medical Device Regulatory Forum 2023.
  • Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council (Energy) meeting on Tuesday.