NATO’s verbal response to Russia’s decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus was predictable. Alliance spokesperson Oana Lungescu labeled it ‘dangerous and provocative.’ She then stated that there has been no change in Russian nuclear posture, meaning there is no need for NATO to adjust its own. The US government’s reply was along similar lines.
On Saturday during a TV interview, Vladimir Putin announced his plan to store tactical nuclear weapons on Belarussian soil. The Russian president pointed out this move will violate no nuclear nonproliferation agreements since Russia will retain control of the warheads. He also compared the decision to how the United States deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe and there are some similarities between the methods. However, the primary difference rests with delivery systems. The US and Russia have aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons in close proximity to the weapon storage sites. But along with this, Russia already has a number of SS-26 Stone (Iskander M to the amateurs) short range ballistic missiles based in Belarus. These missiles can also easily be used as delivery vehicles for tactical nuclear weapons.
It comes as no surprise that Ukraine has been quite vocal on the move, accusing Moscow of making Belarus a ‘nuclear hostage.’ As far as the nuclear threat to Ukraine is concerned though, a limited Russian deployment of tactical nuclear weapons into Belarus does not raise the threat posed to Ukraine. Moscow’s decision is aimed more at NATO and the West, intended to serve as message, perhaps, that the continued arming and supplying of Ukraine could hold significant consequences.
We’re seeing an active end of the week around the world. Tit-for-tat exchange between US forces and Iranian proxies in Syria, the worsening condition of Deutsche Bank and Taiwan has lost a diplomatic ally to China days before Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen heads to Central America and the US. On Sunday one or two of these topics will be looked at briefly.
For today, the South China Sea beckons. On Thursday, China’s Southern Theater Command released a statement claiming that the Chinese military had driven a US Navy destroyer away from operating in close proximity to the disputed Paracel Islands. The US 7th Fleet labeled the claim as ‘false.’ According to a fleet spokesperson, “USS Milius (DDG 69) is conducting routine Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea and was not expelled.” It was not revealed how close Milius was to the Parcels.
China claims sovereignty over much of the South China Sea, though the United States and nations in the region do not recognize the claims. The latest revision to the claims by the Chinese government states that China has the right to enclose the waters around four Chinese-occupied island groups with straight baselines, extending the territorial reach beyond the 12 mile limit recognized by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This goes beyond the historical ‘Nine-Dash-Line’ claim to China’s ownership in the South China Sea (SCS).
Territorial disputes in the SCS are common with multiple nations laying claim to the same reefs and islands in resource rich areas of the sea. In fact, talks are underway at present between Chinese and Philippine officials over the territorial disputes between the two nations. China’s growing aggressiveness and alleged incursions have led to these talks. In February a Philippine coast guard vessel was hit by green laser beams coming from a Chinese coast guard ship.
From Beijing’s point of view, China has become the dominant force in the SCS. The lack of pushback by the United States in earlier years as China constructed new military installations in the waters has unfortunately served to embolden China’s assertiveness in recent years. Now, as the US is growing more focused on containing and pushing back Chinese moves across the Western Pacific, Washington is realizing it is at a significant disadvantage in the SCS as the current situation stands.
Over twelve European Union member-states have come together and pledged to supply Ukraine with at least 1 million artillery shells over the next calendar year. The plan was put together and agreed to on Monday in Brussels. The Ukrainian government has told the EU it needs to use 350,000 artillery rounds each month to keep the Russians from gaining more ground, as well as prepare Ukrainian forces for a counteroffensive at some point later this year. The Ukrainian foreign minister called the EU decision a ‘game changer.’
The first phase of the EU plan is for member-states to draw from their current stockpiles with the target goal of sending this to Ukraine by May. €1Billion has been committed for this phase. Phase Two will see an additional €1Billion allocated to jointly order 155mm rounds for Ukraine. These are the rounds Ukraine uses the most. The terms of the deal will require participating nations to share information about their ammunition stockpiles with the EU and other member-states taking part in the plan. This move is unprecedented and could cause problems in the future as accurate ammunition numbers are generally considered secret in nearly all European nations.
More intriguing is the motivation behind the EU plan. Instead of working to train the Ukrainian military to improve its fire discipline the EU has instead decided to feed Ukraine’s infinite appetite for artillery rounds. The problem is that Europe’s overall supply of available artillery rounds is finite, and so is its production ability. The United States has seen the writing on the wall and recognized it cannot meet Ukraine’s ammunition demands. Earlier this month the Pentagon announced it will be retraining Ukrainian troops to conserve their artillery rounds and use them more effectively. The US shift makes sense and puts Ukraine on notice that it cannot continue to recklessly expend ammunition the way it as.
The EU on the other hand, appears to be rather short-sighted with its newest plan and appears to be banking on a lengthy ceasefire coming about by the start of the summer.
China’s foreign minister conducted a phone conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart and expressed the Chinese government’s growing concern with the continuing war between Russia and China. Beijing is anxious over the prospect of the war escalating and is urging Kiev to discuss a political resolution with Moscow. Coming from the Chinese, a request for negotiations at this point appears self-serving. The discussion between foreign ministers comes amid reports that a Chinese-made drone was shot down last weekend. The United States has led the charge in accusing China of moving closer to supplying Russia with weapons. It would make sense for China to urge a negotiated settlement to try and divert attention away from the discovery of a Chinese-made drone on the battlefield. Pushing this tact is even more sensible considering that Xi Jinping is expected to visit Moscow in the near future and there is widespread speculation concerning what Xi’s arrival in Russia might bring about.
Unfortunately for the West, the warnings put forward about China potentially supplying Russia with weapons and war material is an instance of the pot calling the kettle black. Led by the United States, NATO has provided Ukraine with a continuous stream of weapons since the start of the war. Most recently, a limited number of main battle tanks have entered the pipeline. In the next few days four Polish MiG-29s will arrive in Ukraine. These will be the first combat aircraft provided by a NATO member-state, representing a sizeable escalation in military support. Other alliance members could follow suit, opening the prospect of combat aircraft being made available to Ukraine’s air arm.
This could produce two significant actions. First, Russia might commit a sizeable portion of its air force to the war. So far, the Russian Air Force has played a limited role with the majority of its available combat aircraft kept out of the fighting. Second, an increase in NATO military support could prompt China to begin providing copious amounts of war material to keep Russia afloat. Time will tell which of these two prospects takes shape.
North Korea fired a pair of short-range ballistic missiles early this morning. The missiles were launched from positions near the southwest coast town of Jangyon, flew across the width of North Korea before landing off the east coast. The North Korean government calls these tests a show of force. They were the second tests to occur this week and took place as US and ROK forces conduct exercises on the southern half of the Korean Peninsula. The joint exercises have caused dissatisfaction in Pyongyang. Kim Jong Un’s regime has openly labeled the exercises as ‘frantic war preparations’ and warned North Korea’s armed forces to be ready to repel an attack.
Same old pattern, more or less. The US and South Korea conduct exercises and the North responds with a series of missile tests thinly veiled as a ‘show of force.’ Statements are released by Washington, Seoul and Tokyo reaffirm the tenets of the US-ROK-Japanese strategic partnership. Tensions lessen for a brief period of time and Pyongyang quiets down. Then a few weeks later the cycle begins all over again. In fact, by now the cycle is growing dangerously routine in the eyes of many in the United States, Japan and South Korea.
The wildcard is North Korea’s mounting food crisis, which is producing pressure on the domestic front. Weapons tests and tensions with the US and its regional allies provide a safety valve for Pyongyang to keep the focus of its citizenry on events outside of the North’s borders. As the government has found itself unable to solve the food crisis, it relies more and more on the external threat to keep North Koreans from worrying too much about the diminishing amount of food available. This cannot continue on indefinitely without running the risk of inadvertently sparking a regional war.