Russia Goes for Big Nuclear Blackmail
Moscow is upping the stakes: Alexander Lukashenko's boastful statements about tactical nuclear weapons in his possession have caught the attention of Brussels and Washington, reigniting concerns about an increased nuclear threat from Russia. However, the risk of a missile exchange is not currently observed. The keyword here is "currently."
Immediately after quelling the conspiracy surrounding the Wagner Private Military Company (PMC), Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko initially promised that the Russian warheads on his country's territory would not be guarded by the Wagner Group.
"The Wagner PMC will not guard any nuclear weapons. The Russians and Belarusians are responsible for guarding them today because a significant portion of the nuclear arsenal (I won't say how much) has been brought to Belarus," Lukashenko said in Minsk on the evening of June 27.
He even revealed how this works: "The Russians service the tactical nuclear weapons. We assist in servicing these nuclear weapons. It turns out to be quite a challenging endeavor... And I bear personal responsibility for the safety of these weapons, primarily."
One of the first to express really serious concern about the Russo-Belarusian nuclear duo was US President Joe Biden. He stated that the likelihood of Putin using nuclear weapons is "real" on Juny, 16.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, during his visit to Lithuania on June 26-27, described the transfer of nuclear weapons to Belarus as "reckless and irresponsible" actions. High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell is also worried about the ongoing developments, believing that such a move could lead to "further highly dangerous escalation."
French President Emmanuel Macron criticized Russia's actions as early as April when the plans to move weaponry to Belarus were first announced, stating that they do not comply with international law.
Japan has also condemned Russia's actions. "As the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack, Japan considers Russian nuclear threats and their use absolutely unacceptable," said Hirokazu Matsuno, Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan.
British Conservative MP Bob Seely, who considers himself an expert on matters related to Russian intelligence activities, expressed even greater concerns. In an interview with GB News, he said that the risks of using nuclear weapons are "underestimated" and are "higher than we think."
What's Really Going On?
While the actions of the Kremlin resemble mere blackmail, the concerns of the leaders of the free world are not unfounded.
Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian president has repeatedly threatened NATO countries with a nuclear attack if they hinder his plans to swallow up a neighboring country. For instance, at the end of 2022, the Russian president warned that nuclear weapons could be used as a means of Russia's defense for "preemptive strike"("counter and preemptive strike" in originally speech). In June 2023, the Kremlin leader reiterated that the use of nuclear weapons is "theoretically possible" and necessary for Russia's security in the broadest sense.
Source: Screen shot from Russia-1 TV
Interestingly, Russian society has long been injected with the idea of a possible nuclear strike against the United States. In a episode of the news program "Vesti Nedeli" in March 2014, Dmitry Kiselyov, a TV host, casually stated that Russia is capable of turning the US into "radioactive ash." It's worth noting that this is a state-run television channel that broadcasts government messages, leaving no room for doubt.
This is not the only nuclear threat coming from a figure who acts as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. In May 2022, Kiselyov suggested that it wouldn't be a bad idea to sink the British Isles. By "Sarmat" missiles.
The climax of the Russian nuclear hysteria came with an article published on June 13, 2023, by Sergei Karaganov, a member of the scientific council of the Russian Security Council (and former advisor to Putin). In the article, he describes the possibility of a nuclear strike against Western European countries. However, at the same time, Karaganov calls such a strike "hypothetical" and expresses hope that Russia will "never use nuclear weapons."
So what is this all about? It's a well-known Russian military doctrine called "escalation through de-escalation."
Escalation through de-escalation
Despite the Kremlin's ominous messages, the position of the US State Department and NATO leadership remains unwavering: they believe that the likelihood of a nuclear confrontation with Russia is currently low. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as well as Jens Stoltenberg, maintain the opinion that there are no signs indicating Russia's readiness to use nuclear weapons right now. "We see no indications that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons," Stoltenberg stated in Lithuania on June 26.
At the same time, NATO has decided to demonstrate its own muscle. From June 12 to 23, the alliance conducted its largest-ever air-force exercise called "Air Defender". The exercise involved 25 countries, approximately 10,000 military personnel, and 250 aircraft. Notably, Sweden, which is not yet a member of the alliance, and even Japan, a non-NATO member, participated in the exercises.
Japan's participation serves as a hint to Russia that its attempts to seek support from China in the event of a direct confrontation with NATO are unlikely to be of any help. Especially since China is maneuvering and attempting to maintain neutrality in the Ukrainian-Russian issue. In a recent interview with the Israeli publication "Al Jazeera," China's Ambassador to the EU, Fu Tsun, stated that Beijing fully supports Ukraine's aspirations to regain its territories as they were in 1991.
Towards the end of the exercises, the alliance increased the actions of its combat aircraft in Lithuania and Poland, which share a common border with Belarus, where Russia is relocating its nuclear weapons.
Clearly, NATO not only reaffirmed its readiness to defend the territory of its member countries but also sent a clear message to Russia that nuclear blackmail is not to be tolerated. "The 'Air Defender' exercises send a clear signal that NATO is ready to defend every inch of the North Atlantic Alliance's territory," said NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu.
Therefore, the Kremlin's gamble for escalation has not yet achieved its goal.
Kremlin Threatens All of Europe
However, the nuclear threat remains a reality, albeit in a different form. A more probable scenario is a potential attack on the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), located in Ukraine. It is the largest nuclear power station in Europe, with six reactors generating 1,000 megawatts each.
Kirill Budanov, the Head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine, revealed in an interview with the British publication New Statesman on June 23 that Russia has planted explosives in the cooling pond of the ZNPP and has prepared a plan for sabotage. "Without cooling, the nuclear reactors can melt down within a period of ten hours to 14 days," warned Budanov. Undoubtedly, Ukraine is primarily at risk, but such a catastrophe would inevitably affect the neighboring countries of Europe as well.
However, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) asserts that no mining of the cooling pond has been detected. Moreover, during a briefing on June 26, John Kirby, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, stated that according to US intelligence, the threat to the ZNPP at present is "not imminent."
Kirby also expressed skepticism about the nuclear threats from Russia overall. "Aside from fiery rhetoric, we see no indications of any intention to use nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil," summarized the White House representative.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces are gradually encircling the territory where the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant is located, from the east, urging Russian troops to retreat under the threat of being surrounded. In doing so, they are disrupting the Kremlin's game of cards.