Russia and Belarus Hold Joint Non-Strategic Nuclear Exercises (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 80

(Source: Russian Ministry of Defense)

Executive Summary:

  • Russia and Belarus announced a joint tactical nuclear exercise to signal to Western countries that deploying their troops in Ukraine will lead to nuclear escalation.
  • The general staffs of the Russian and Belarusian armed forces are preparing tactical nuclear strikes on targets located on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s eastern flank.
  • The nuclear exercises suggest that, in the future, the Belarusian Armed Forces may engage directly in the war.

On the eve of his inauguration on May 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a strategic decision. In response to the approval of a US aid package to Ukraine and the growing hints from some Western politicians about potential troop deployments, he ordered the Russian General Staff to conduct exercises testing the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons (see EDM, April 30). The Southern Military District and the Russian Navy would also be involved. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that the exercises are aimed at maintaining the readiness of non-strategic nuclear weapons “to ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian state in response to provocative statements and threats of certain Western officials against the Russian Federation” (, May 6). These exercises demonstrate that Russia is willing to do whatever it takes to maintain an advantage, including involving neighboring Belarus in its intimidation tactics.

That same day, Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov bluntly stated that the exercises were caused by talk of some Western politicians about potentially sending troops to Ukraine (Interfax, May 6). Putin’s order to prepare for the exercises was announced a few hours after the statement from US Representative Hakeem Jeffries that the United States has not ruled out sending troops to Ukraine (Kommersant, May 6). French President Emmanuel Macron has taken the lead in discussing the need to send Western troops to Ukraine to prevent Russia from winning the war (Kommersant, February 27, May 2). In turn, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron has said that Ukraine has the right to use British weapons to strike targets on Russian territory (Meduza, May 2).

The Russian Foreign Ministry claimed in a statement that these exercises were meant to cool down “hotheads” in Western capitals and help them “realize the possible catastrophic consequences of the strategic risks they generate” (, May 6). Deputy Head of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev hinted that sending Western troops would entail the direct entry of their countries into the war, to which Russia would have to respond, potentially with nuclear strikes on the United States, France, and England (, May 6).

Military expert Yuriy Fedorov believes that if the exercises are held in the Southern Military District, then their purpose is to train for the possible use of weapons against Ukraine, Türkiye, Bulgaria, or Romania. Simultaneously, Fedorov paid special attention to the wording chosen by the Russian Ministry of Defense. According to him, because these are exercises without the actual use of nuclear weapons, they imply the preparation of a missile for the Iskander system, which can carry nuclear warheads. If tactical nuclear weapons are moved from storage bases to the troops, however, then this indicates the last stage before the use of nuclear weapons. He went on to argue that the transfer of nuclear weapons from warehouses is dangerous because the adversary may perceive it as preparation for a nuclear attack and launch a preemptive disarming strike (French military doctrine allows this, for instance). If the nuclear warheads stay in storage, then the exercises would just be training, and Moscow would be trying to intimidate Kyiv and Western capitals (, May 6).

Pavel Podvig, a senior researcher at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, noted that Russia periodically conducts exercises similar to those announced, despite assessments that such nuclear exercises have not been held since Soviet times (Current Time, May 7). According to Podvig, in 2020, Iskander-M crews in Buryatia practiced the delivery of “special ammunition” to a designated area. He added that when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) says that Russia is practicing for the use of nuclear weapons, it only sees the delivery of procedures with models, without the delivery of real tactical nuclear warheads (, May 6).

The Kremlin has explained the decision to conduct exercises of non-strategic nuclear forces as a “response” to the statements of the French and British and other publications in the Western press. For instance, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica identifies two “red lines” that could lead to NATO involvement (primarily in the form of the use of air forces and missile strikes, and, in the future, in the form of actions by ground forces). The first red line would be the involvement of a third country in the war against Ukraine, such as Belarus. The second would be Russian military provocations against NATO countries, such as the Baltic states, Poland, or Moldova. Violating these red lines would force NATO to consider sending a 100,000-strong contingent to counter the threats the Russian side poses. They would be deployed on NATO’s eastern flank—in Hungary, Poland, the Baltic states, Romania, and Slovakia (La Repubblica, May 5).

In this context, increased Belarusian involvement looks inevitable (see EDM, May 9). Speaking at a solemn meeting on May 7 in honor of Victory Day, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka warned Western countries that their capitals are legitimate targets for nuclear strikes in the event of a “decision to commit aggression.” Simultaneously, he announced a surprise inspection of the regional group of Belarusian and Russian forces. The joint command plans to work out the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons in Belarus for the first time (President of Belarus, May 7).

Lukashenka insists that the inspection is exclusively defensive. He claims it is designed to ensure the readiness of Belarusian military units to work with special (nuclear) ammunition, debug command-and-control procedures, and test the interactions of the joint command-and-control bodies. According to the Belarusian leader, these military activities will be carried out against a common operational and strategic background, with Russian troops practicing the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons. Belarusian forces would assist by covertly withdrawing Iskander and Polonez missile system battalions to designated locations, preparing Su-25 aircraft to support ground forces, and coordinating communication with Russian forces, including the Baltic Fleet (President of Belarus, May 7).

Lukashenka confirmed previously expressed assumptions that tactical nuclear weapons are assigned to the joint regional group of forces and subordinated to their joint command (see EDM, March 13). The nature of these military activities testifies to Moscow and Minsk’s preparation for joint preventive tactical nuclear strikes against targets located on NATO’s eastern flank (see EDM, April 30). These developments, in turn, indicate preparations for further escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine, including the possible direct engagement of the Belarusian Armed Forces.