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.
Xi Jinping has left Moscow, bringing an end to a visit which was watched closely from Kiev to Washington. Surprisingly, there appears to be a growing consensus in some media and geopolitical circles that the Xi-Putin meetings will not result in in concrete changes to the Sino-Russian relationship, or China’s position regarding the war in Ukraine. Based on public statements and the slivers of information emanating from behind closed doors these thoughts are nothing beyond the obvious. The real decisions were made behind closed doors between Monday and Thursday and just what they were will only become clear as time goes on.
First off, the strategic relationship between China and Russia is almost certainly now solidified in a junior-senior partner dynamic. As the senior partner, it is in Beijing’s best interests to keep Russia afloat in the war for an extended period of time. Or, as an alternative, press for peace talks resulting in a short-term ceasefire at the very least. China’s peace plan is very popular in the Kremlin but has hardly gained a second look in Kiev or the West. To be blunt, the plan is anything but fair and if agreed to by all parties and implemented, would see Russia keep possession of the territory it has gained so far in the war. Should Ukraine and the West formally reject China’s attempt at playing peacemaker, this opens the door for China to supply Russia with military equipment and material.
More disconcerting, it will also pave the way for China to start laying the foundation for its own geopolitical and military moves in the Western Pacific and beyond.
Author’s Note: Short post today. Free time slipped away a bit. I’m considering starting up a substack for DIRT to have a place where I can post in-depth analysis, while keeping this blog mostly for shorter briefs and updates. I’ll be sure to keep readers in the loop. –Mike
Xi Jinping is set to arrive in Moscow on Monday with the weight of China’s foreign policy ambitions weighing on his shoulders. The visit to Russia comes as the war in Ukraine continues on with no end in sight, the International Criminal Court has announced it intends to put Vladimir Putin on trial for alleged war crimes and China is ambitiously seeking to expand its global role. Should Xi play his cards right, he could walk away from Moscow on Wednesday in a strong position to influence and perhaps bring about an acceptable end to the war. Acceptable to China and Russia that is.
Russian officials have voiced hope that Xi’s visit will result in new approaches to the war being found. Putin’s foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov said, “I’m sure that our leader and the Chinese leader will exchange their assessments of the situation. We shall see what ideas will emerge after that.” China’s proposal for a ceasefire and negotiations was warmly received in Moscow last month. Ukraine welcomed China’s involvement but went no farther.
It could be difficult if not impossible to ignore China’s growing presence and influence, however. After successfully brokering a restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Xi is looking to position China to play a greater role in managing global affairs. It would not come as a shock if Xi laid out a new ceasefire proposal while in Moscow or offered to mediate talks between the Russian and Ukrainian governments aimed at reaching a peaceful settlement to the war. China playing the part of peacemaker is in contradiction to its position on territorial integrity. Specifically, concerning Taiwan. The Taiwan matter could prevent any future Chinese peace proposals from being taken seriously by Kiev or the West.
The end might be approaching for Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut. Maybe. It depends on whose statements and reports you choose to agree with. The Russians and their Wagner Group mercenaries claim to have made tremendous gains and are on the verge of encircling the city. Despite the encouraging tone and content of Russian statements, the fighting continues.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government’s position on Bakhmut is undergoing a revision. Volodymir Zelenskiy has promised Ukrainian troops will continue fighting on in Bakhmut. By continuing to hold the city, he explained in an interview yesterday, it denies Russia from being able to claim a symbolic victory, as well preventing Russian forces from capturing Bakhmut and using it as a jump-off point for future operations in the east. As for the city’s value to Ukraine and its military, at this time it is representational. Ukrainian forces have prepared hardened defensive lines to the west in anticipation of the future Russian axis of advance. The danger right now for Ukrainian forces in and around Bakhmut is time. The longer they remain in place, the greater the chances of their eventual encirclement becomes. Nevertheless, Zelenskiy and his military commanders met earlier in the week and decided Bakhmut will continue to be defended.
NATO is preparing for the possible fall of Bakhmut as well. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg admitted today that the city could be in Russian hands within a matter of days. However, Stoltenberg was also careful to point out that should Bakhmut fall it will not represent a turning point in the war or swing momentum back to the Russian side.
Over the last twelve months the West has tried to persuade the Chinese government to lend its assistance to finding a solution to the war in Ukraine. Those attempts have yielded zero tangible results. Now China is moving on its own to present itself as a peacemaker as well as to send a firm message to the West and specifically to the United States.
China’s position paper outlined a 12 point peace plan calls for an immediate ceasefire to be followed by renewed efforts to end the conflict through dialogue and diplomacy. The plan is made up of the following points: Respecting the sovereignty of all countries; Abandoning the Cold War mentality; Ceasing hostilities; Resuming peace talks; Resolving the humanitarian crisis; Protecting civilians and prisoners of war; Keeping nuclear power plants safe; Reducing strategic risks; Facilitating grain exports; Stopping unilateral sanctions; Keeping industrial and supply chains stable; Promoting post-conflict reconstruction.
The plan includes a number of Chinese talking points including a call for the West to move away from the ‘Cold War mentality.’ Naturally, the United States and her allies gave a cool response to the plan while Russia praised it. In the eyes of the West, China’s support for Russia discredits Beijing’s calls for a ceasefire and peace. Specific mention was made concerning China’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion or impose sanctions as punishment.
Judging from the contents of the position paper and the language used in it, China does not realistically expect to see its proposal be seriously considered by any of the involved parties. For that matter, peace in Ukraine is not a high priority national interest for the Chinese. But the continuing war does present an opportunity for Beijing to present itself as sincerely pushing for a peaceful conclusion to the Russia-Ukraine war, as well a world power opposed to destructive power bloc politics reminiscent of the Cold War years. An audience exists that will find this message appealing, and its clear that the Chinese 12 point peace plan was directed at least partly at these countries and governments.