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

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 92

(Source: President of Belarus)

Executive Summary:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka met in Minsk on May 23 and 24 to discuss synchronizing the second and third phases of their joint non-strategic nuclear exercises.
  • The composition of forces and means involved in the exercises suggests that the Kremlin is conducting strategic command and staff maneuvers to simulate a first nuclear strike during a front-line offensive operation.
  • The second phase of the non-strategic nuclear exercises demonstrated Moscow and Minsk’s focus is on creating a planning group for the nuclear defeat of Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

(Part One) 

On May 23 and 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Minsk to discuss the formation of a joint defense space and the second phase of non-strategic nuclear exercises with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka(see EDM, May 15). Both Minsk and Moscow continue to claim that they fully comply with international obligations regarding nuclear arms control and do not intend to launch an attack. They also assert that they are not escalating tensions but merely mirroring the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) nuclear-sharing practices, which involve similar exercises with US tactical nuclear weapons and associated military personnel, aircraft, and delivery systems (President of Belarus, May 24). This explanation contradicts the Kremlin and Russian Ministry of Defense’s earlier alarming statements about the exercises about ensuring “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; see EDM, May 23). 

Lukashenka and Putin jointly announced their order to simultaneously conduct non-strategic nuclear exercises in Russia and Belarus after the May 9 Victory Day parade in Moscow. The Belarusian leader clarified that both countries decided to synchronize the exercises, holding the second and third phases jointly (Interfax, May 9). 

The second phase of the exercises began on May 7 on Belarusian territory. The exercises involved coordination between the Belarusian General Staff and Russian Armed Forces. They also included forces and assets from the Regional Grouping of Forces of Belarus and Russia (RGF), including its tactical nuclear component (Ministry of Defense of Belarus, May 7). A squadron of Su-25 attack aircraft from the 116th Attack Air Base (Lida) and the 587th Separate Missile Battalion of the 465th Missile Brigade (Osipovichy), armed with Iskander-M missiles, participated in the exercises. A 336th Rocket Artillery Brigade unit, armed with Polonez-M MLRS/operational-tactical missile systems, was also in use. On May 7, two Su-25 attack aircraft flew from Lida to the Machulishchi airfield as part of an inspection. The Belarusian General staff also planned to deploy units armed with Iskander-M and Polonez-M systems to designated position areas (, May 7).

Official statements indicate that several combat training elements were practiced during the exercise (see Table 1).

Table 1. Combat Training Tasks and Units of the Belarusian Armed Forces Involved in the Second Phase of Exercise (as of May)

Combat Training Tasks Units
·        Supply of “special ammunition” to missile and aviation units,

·        Loading on launchers and setting up on aircraft,

·        Covert withdrawal of the Iskander and Polonez operational-tactical missile systems’ battalions to designated positions,

·        Tactical nuclear missile strikes to repel a possible attack on Belarus,

·        Training of Su-25 front-line attack aircraft for actions with special ammunition to support the defending troops and inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy, and

·        Exchange of operational intelligence data with the military units of the Moscow and Leningrad military districts and the forces and means of the Baltic Fleet stationed in the Kaliningrad region (President of Belarus, May 7).

·        One Su-25 with external fuel tanks, which are usually used to accommodate additional fuel on the aircraft and provide a longer flight range; and

·        One Iskander-M launcher with a transport loader with a nuclear-capable ballistic missile (Ministry of Defense of Belarus, May 7).

Personnel from the Southern Military District’s missile formations and Russian Aerospace Forces’ aviation units joined the second phase of the exercise on May 21 (see Table 2).

Table 2. Combat Training Tasks and Units of the Russian Armed Forces Involved in the Second Phase of Exercises (as of May)

Combat Training Tasks Units
·        Obtaining “special ammunition” for the Iskander operational-tactical missile systems,;

·        Warhead armament of missiles and launch carriers; 

·        Covert moves to a designated position area to prepare for missile launches;

·        Equipping aviation weapons with special warheads, including Kinzhal ballistic hypersonic missiles; and 

·        Sorties of aviation units to designated patrol areas (Interfax-AVN, May 21).

·        Convoy of KAMAZ trucks of the 12th Main Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defense, which usually carry nuclear warheads for missiles, with an armored personnel carrier “Vystrel-M” at the head of the column;

·        Iskander-M launchers and transport loaders with nuclear-capable ballistic and cruise missiles;

·        One Tu-22M3 with unidentified aircraft missile weapons; and

·        One MiG-31I with the Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missile with characteristic casing (, May 21).

Russia’s and Belarus’s non-strategic nuclear forces has led some Western experts to consider the exercises a form of nuclear blackmail in Moscow’s hybrid war against the West (Golos Ameriki, May 22). Some pro-Kremlin Russian military bloggers, such as Andrei Soyustov, however, argue that the West has largely ignored these exercises with practical training in the use of tactical nuclear weapons (Voennoe Delo, May 24). Another Russian military blogger, Andrey Kots, highlights that these exercises are intended to provoke uncertainty in the West, as tactical nuclear weapons are not regulated by the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty, making their quantity, storage locations, and delivery methods strictly classified (RIA Novosti, May 23).

The participating forces and assets suggest that the Kremlin is conducting strategic command and staff maneuvers in the exercise with the Southern, Leningrad, and Moscow military districts; air and space forces; the Baltic and Black sea fleets, and units from the RGF. In line with Soviet tradition, the exercises likely involved planning and executing a first nuclear strike during a front-line offensive operation as part of a strategic operation in the European theater. According to Soviet experience, the demarcation boundaries to kill zones were distributed between the nuclear assets of the Supreme High Command in the war theater and the front command (CIA, June 1985). In modern conditions, Putin, the supreme commander-in-chief of the Russian Armed Forces, along with his war cabinet and Lukashenka, perform the duties of the Supreme Command while the Joint Command of the RGF focuses on the front command.

Despite the lack of any large-scale practical elements, the second phase of the exercises likely focused on planning for the nuclear defeat of targets located on NATO’s eastern flank and in Ukraine (see EDM, April 30). This may explain why Lukashenka appointed Pavel Muraveika as the new chief of the Belarusian General Staff before negotiations with Putin and why Putin brought the new Russian Defense Minister Andrei Belousov with him (President of Belarus, May 23; RIA Novosti, May 24).

The most likely reason for the participation of Belousov in the Minsk talks is the discussion about creating a planning group for the nuclear defeat of the enemy. Earlier, Lukashenka stated that negotiations with Putin would determine the decision-making mechanisms and protocols for the use of Russian tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil (see EDM, March 13, May 9, 23;, April 24). According to Soviet practice, such a planning group consists of representatives from the Russian and Belarusian general staffs and the joint command of the RGF. These drills and Russia and Belarus’s cooperation indicate that Moscow may be planning an escalation and expansion of hostilities as the war in Ukraine rages on.