Russia and Belarus War-Game Nuclear Attack on Ukraine and Eastern Europe

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 66

(Source: Vitaly V. Kuzmin, Wikimedia Commons)

Executive Summary:

  • The deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus is a political signal to unnerve the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) easternmost member states and a practical preparation for nuclear escalation.
  • Russia’s storage of nuclear warheads on Belarusian territory suggests that the Kremlin is preparing them for operational use.
  • The Russian and Belarusian militaries have been war-gaming simulated nuclear attacks on targets located in Ukraine and NATO’s eastern flank based on the assumption that the West is morally too weak to respond with retaliatory strikes.

Almost immediately after the US House of Representatives approved $61 billion of military assistance to Ukraine, the Kremlin once again threatened the West with nuclear war. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that increasing Western aid to Ukraine threatens a direct military clash between nuclear powers. According to him, the concern is that the three Western nuclear states (the United States, the United Kingdom, and France) are among Kyiv’s key sponsors and therefore heighten the use of nuclear weapons. Moscow considers this a serious strategic risk and may take matters into its own hands as Kremlin propaganda claims that Russia is fighting a “long war” against Ukraine and the collective West (RIA Novosti, April 22).

Lavrov’s statements do not appear to be simply empty rhetoric, as Russia has pre-deployed tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) in Belarus for potential preemptive use (see EDM, March 13). The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) recently confirmed the establishment of a nuclear warhead storage base near Asipovichy, Belarus, where the 1405th Artillery Ammunition Base is located (FAS, March 14). The location is also near the 465th Missile Brigade, which is armed with Russian-supplied Iskander-M operational-tactical missile systems, or TNW carriers.

Western analysts believe that moving nuclear weapons to Belarus is clearly a political signal. The true purpose behind the move, however, may be more rooted in posturing than practical tactics. Russia already has the capability to strike North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states with nuclear weapons from its territory. Placing nuclear warheads in Belarus does not give Russia a significant military advantage in Eastern Europe. Moreover, Russia already has modernized nuclear weapons storage facilities in Kaliningrad. Instead, some Western commentators emphasize that the deployment is designed to unnerve NATO’s easternmost members and re-emphasize Russia’s status as a nuclear power (, March 15).

The nature of the deployment of Russian TNWs indicates that Moscow may be preparing for their operational use against Ukraine and NATO’s eastern flank. Specifically, the military storage facility at the 1405th Artillery Ammunition Base was only modernized with additional security perimeters and an access point (, March 15). As a rule, nuclear weapons storage facilities subordinate to the 12th Main Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defense, which is responsible for managing the nuclear arsenal, must be equipped with certain security measures. No underground bunker-type fortifications, designed for the long-term storage of TNWs, however, were built on the Belarusian base’s territory. Instead, the nuclear warheads were placed in one of the arsenals of the ammunition base, which also stores operational-tactical missiles for the Iskander-M system. In turn, storing the nuclear warheads almost in tandem with their launch vehicles indicates that a repair and maintenance base (RMB) has been organized on the territory of the 1405th Artillery Ammunition Base to prepare the TNWs for operational use. In particular, RMB personnel are tasked with setting nuclear warheads on missiles.

During peacetime, TNWs are stored at special bunker-type fortified facilities, and RMBs are located outside the bases housing the TNW carriers and delivery vehicles. After receiving an order or special signal from the supreme commander-in-chief, minister of defense, and chief of the Russian General Staff, TNWs are moved to stationary or mobile RMBs. Next, the RMB assembly teams set them on the missiles, after which they are moved to units for combat use (Meduza, March 20, 2022). By contrast, the Russian TNWs in Belarus have been deployed in essentially field conditions. This method reduces the time required to deliver and set up the nuclear warheads on missiles, which indicates preparation for operational use.

In addition, Valery Sahashchyk, representative for national defense of the Belarusian opposition-in-exile’s United Transitional Cabinet and former commander of the Belarusian 38th Separate Guards Air Assault Brigade (Brest), says that Belarusian and Russian militaries are war-gaming and preparing for an attack on Lithuania. The wargame imitates an assault on Vilnius with conventional means and a simultaneous demonstrative nuclear strike. According to Sahashchyk’s sources, Russian and Belarusian generals hope such developments would shock the West into surrendering (Nasha Niva, March 23). Sahashchyk elaborated on the reasons behind this scenario (, March 30).

  • Russian and Belarusian generals concluded that seizing territory by conventional means for attacking troops (based on the experiences in Bakhmut and Avdiivka) is associated with huge losses, while the advance is very slow and small and the captured territory turns into a useless desert.
  • The Kremlin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka are convinced of the moral weakness of Western countries, which they believe would not dare to actively confront Moscow, especially at the risk of nuclear war.
  • Aggression against Lithuania by conventional means is on the agenda, along with a demonstrative strike with TNWs—either against Lithuania or Ukraine. Russia may use its nuclear weapons to elicit an ultimatum.
  • Indicators of plans to attack Lithuania include exercises outside the usual training grounds and the repairing of bridges near its borders, including those not used for economic activities.
  • Indicators of preparation for a nuclear strike include the reinforcement of Radiological, Chemical, and Biological Defense (RKhBZ) units, exercises to decontaminate the terrain, and the re-equipping of RKhBZ units, which has not happened for quite some time.

Other worrisome indicators include Russian Aerospace Forces using Kh-55 nuclear-capable cruise missiles with imitators of nuclear warheads against targets in Poland and Ukraine from Belarusian airspace (, May 10, 2023;, June 26, 2023). Such simulated attacks suggest that Russia has been practicing for at least a tactical nuclear strike. 

The Kremlin’s hypothetical use of TNWs from Belarusian territory and airspace would allow Moscow to use Belarus as a cover from retaliatory strike by the United States and NATO (Forstrategy, September 20, 2022). Belarus, not Russia, would become the first natural target for such a response. The fact that Lukashenka stresses his participation in the decision-making process on using Russian TNWs only heightens the possibility of Belarus becoming a target (see EDM, March 13). As a result, Russia watchers should continue to monitor Belarus’s military for signs of potential escalation.