Ukraine Situation Report: Russian Nukes Ready To Deploy To Belarus This Summer

Iskander Belarus
Iskander Belarus
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Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Saturday that Russia intends to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to its neighboring ally Belarus as ties between the former Soviet states deepen further.

State-run news agency TASS reported on Putin's remarks on Rossiya-24 TV.

"We have handed over to Belarus our well-known and very effective Iskander system that can carry [nuclear weapons]," Putin said. "On April 3, we will start training the crew and on July 1 we will complete the construction of a special storage for tactical nuclear weapons on the Belarusian territory."

In his remarks, Putin tied the nuclear weapons' looming deployment to Ukraine's receipt of depleted uranium munitions, though he said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko "has long raised the question of deploying Russian tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus." The reality is that this has been in the works publicly for the better part of a year now, long before the U.K. said it would give depleted uranium tank rounds to Ukraine.

Putin said Russia will not transfer nuclear weapons sent to Belarus directly to the Belarusian military and claimed Moscow was only doing as the United States has done with its NATO allies under its nuclear sharing program. He further claimed 10 Belarusian Air Force aircraft have already been equipped to deliver tactical nuclear weapons.

Russia already has nuclear-capable weapons systems in its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad Oblast, but the return of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus shouldn’t come as a surprise. The line where Russia ends and Belarus begins has only gotten blurrier since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, in which Russian troops used the country as a springboard for its ill-fated offensive on Kyiv.

The prospect of nuclear cooperation between Moscow and Minsk first appeared in June, when Putin announced the transfer of nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles to Belarus. In that announcement, Putin quipped that Belarus’ fleet of Su-25 Frogfoot attack aircraft could be upgraded to carry tactical nuclear weapons. Belarus inherited a number of tactical nuclear weapons, as well as 81 SS-25 “Sickle” road-mobile ICBMs when the union collapsed, but later returned their stockpile to Russia.

Lukashenko said in August his country had acquired nuclear strike aircraft in a claim that provoked more questions than answers. In Putin’s December visit to Belarus, he announced Russian pilots were training their Belarusian counterparts to fly missions with “special warheads,” an apparent reference to nuclear weapons. The two countries recently announced Belarus would begin producing the Su-25, previously built in Soviet-era Georgia.

While it remains unclear exactly under what scheme Russia will deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus. Based on Putin's comments today, it seems most likely that some Belarusian units could in fact be staffed, at least partially, with Russians and equipped with Russian nuclear weapons. This could be paired or eventually solely feature an arrangement where forward-deployed nuclear weapons get released by Russia under a command and control arrangement for use by specially trained Belarusian units during a crisis.

We will have to see how this all pans out, but a nuclear-armed Belarus could be a reality by summer

Before we dive into the latest updates from Ukraine, The War Zone readers can get caught up on our previous rolling coverage here.

The Latest

Here’s the latest intelligence update from the British Ministry of Defense on the war in Ukraine. It’s now assessed that Russia’s grueling offensive on the besieged town of Bakhmut has “largely stalled” after “extreme attrition.”

Ukrainian forces have likewise taken heavy casualties defending the city from encirclement. Russian efforts have now likely shifted to the flanks, toward the Kremina-Svatove highway in the north, and Avdiivka in the south. However, these are assessed as stabilizing efforts as Russian forces return to a defensive posture from its January-February general offensive.

In its most recent analysis, the Institute for the Study of War shared this assessment, adding that such a Russian stall could open the door for Ukraine to regain the initiative.

Continued infighting between Wagner Group PMC forces and the Russian Ministry of Defense hasn’t helped things on the Russian side, either. Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has been anything but quiet on most all topics, from bizarre frontline dispatches to blistering critiques of regular Russian forces.

But in a new video, Prigozhin has traded in bluster and bravado for caution and warning, which could be preparing his supporters for defeat in the area. Looking over a map of eastern Ukraine, Prigozhin calmly outlines what he expects of coming spring counteroffensives from Ukrainian forces, namely a claim that Ukraine has concentrated 80,000 reserves around Bakhmut as part of a spring push to return to 1991 borders.

Prigozhin also claimed he expects to see Ukrainian offensives toward Crimea and occupied cities in southern Ukraine, including Berdyansk, Melitopol, and Mariupol. In the same setting, Prigozhin expresses doubts about Nazis in Ukraine and assures the audience they are not fighting NATO, but exclusively Ukrainians.

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Prigohzin’s warnings of a Ukrainian counteroffensive may not be without merit, either. Commander of the Ground Forces of Ukraine, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, said in a Telegram post that Kyiv will “very soon” take advantage of Russian attrition in a counteroffensive on Bakhmut.

"The aggressor does not give up hope of taking Bakhmut at any cost, despite losing manpower and equipment,” Syrskyi said. “The main forces of the Russian Federation in this direction are representatives of the Wagner PMC. They spare nothing; they lose significant forces. Very soon, we will take advantage of this opportunity, as we once did near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balaklia, and Kupiansk.”

Apart from the Bakhmut area, there are signs that Russia is further preparing for a Ukrainian offensive on occupied Crimea. Russian construction crews remain busy building trenches and concrete pillboxes along the Crimean coastline.

Along with the fortifications, FM radio stations in Crimea broadcast a warning for residents to be ready for a potential evacuation from the peninsula. While it’s unclear whether this is genuine from Russian occupying forces or Ukraine’s latest operation in psychological warfare, the broadcast warned that mainland connections to Russia could be cut at any time.

While Prigozhin has warned of a Ukrainian offensive on Melitopol and other critical road junctions in southern Ukraine, the most well-known connection between Russia and Crimea is almost fully repaired. Nearly six months after an explosion severed the Crimean Bridge, satellite imagery shows that repairs appear to be nearly complete. However, a video taken on the accompanying rail bridge shows much of the damage to that span remains.

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Despite the fortifications and concern, Russian Transport Minister Vitaly Savelyev claimed in a video briefing with Russian President Vladimir Putin that protective measures for the bridge will increase as the summer holiday season approaches.

A U.S.-provided Defiant-class patrol vessel in Ukrainian service has been spotted on the Dnipro River. The U.S. pledged six Defiants and a host of other riverine craft in aid packages last summer, with another pledge just recently.

In Russia, Moscow’s patience with its sanction-hobbled defense sector appears to be running thin. As reports emerge that Russia’s armored vehicle assembly lines are idling thanks to shortfalls of vital electronics, former Russian leader and deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia Dmitry Medvedev explicitly threatened arms makers with jail for not meeting production demands.

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This isn’t the first time Medvedev has resorted to threats as Russia’s wartime industry falters, but invoking World War II-era telegrams from Joseph Stalin certainly underscores the threat Moscow sees to its war effort. It's also derailed Russia's arms exports, with Reuters reporting on March 23 that the Indian Air Force claimed Russia cannot fulfill its delivery commitments.

If the sanctions weren’t causing enough problems, another industrial accident was reported at the Yaroslavl Motor Plant northeast of Moscow.

A new video shows a company-sized unit of Russia’s most modern tanks produced despite sanctions, the T-90M, in the field somewhere in Ukraine. The tanks all sport additional camouflage and Nakidka radar-absorbent material, or RAM, blankets.

Footage from a Ukrainian attack on Russian mechanized forces near Avdiivka shows a number of burning vehicles and a tank turret sent into low-earth orbit after an ammo rack explosion.

First-person footage shows close combat among the bunkers and trenches at the frontline.

Drones big and small have become an integral part of both sides’ war effort, and new imagery continues to show that. The Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces released pictures of instructors with the 101st Territorial Defense Forces Brigade teaching artillery fire direction with quadcopter drones. Combat drone training for Ukrainian forces occurs in part through its Free Air school, which you can read more about in our recent feature here.

We have seen the use of drones evolve throughout the 13 months of war in Ukraine, and recent videos from the frontline show just that. Whether correcting indirect fire, dropping munitions from above, or themselves on a one-way kamikaze mission, Ukrainian drone operations continue at a high tempo.

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Everybody has been late to something on account of a traffic jam, but it turns out some Ukrainians have had a pretty incredible reason to be stuck on the road: HIMARS. A new video shows traffic stopped for a roadside HIMARS launch as Ukrainian forces keep the invaluable rocket launchers on the move for strikes behind Russian lines.

The mud and muck that has hamstrung many a military vehicle in Ukraine. A new video shows what was once a road now deeply rutted and gashed as a Ukrainian GAZ truck powers through.

Remarkable videos show Ukrainian forces training with Humvees and M2 Bradley fighting vehicles alongside NATO instructors. While still training in NATO countries far from the frontlines for now, these mechanized units will be the tip of the spear when they arrive in Ukraine.

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Ukrainian Air Force sorties over the frontline continue, as a video shows a pair of UAF Su-25 Frogfoot attack aircraft making a low pass near the front. Each Frogfoot carries a pair of B-13 122mm rocket pods and external fuel tanks, likely for a lofted rocket attack as demonstrated by a Czech-supplied Ukrainian Mi-24V Hind gunship below.

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UAF spokesperson Yurii Ignat said in remarks that the Russian Air Force has begun retrofitting its legacy “FAB” unguided bombs with GPS-guidance kits, turning the previous dumb bombs into standoff glide bombs with precision guidance. Ignat’s description matches the general system of the U.S.-designed Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, guidance kits.

Ukraine started receiving JDAM-ER winged smart bombs from the U.S. earlier this year. Many questions remain as to if the Russian kits are really guided and to what degree.

Ignat also announced foreigners are now allowed to serve in the Ukrainian Air Force. Kyiv likely hopes those foreigners will one day be flying western-supplied fighters, with the latest discussions on that topic reportedly focusing on the Finnish Air Force’s fleet of F/A-18 Hornets.

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Finally, on the topic of air defenses, new footage shows a Ukrainian Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft gun crew in action, as well as a Stormer air defense system shooting down a Russian UAV near the fighting in Avdiivka. Oh, and the counter-drone teams have gone full "Mad Max" with a truck-mounted turret with three Maxim machine guns to hit Russian drones at low altitudes.

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That's it for now. We'll update this story when there's more news to report about Ukraine.

Contact the author: stetson.payne@thewarzone.com