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The Week In Russia: Tough Talk, Tactical Weapons, And An Unprecedented Arrest

Belarus's strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2021
Belarus's strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2021

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

President Vladimir Putin threatens to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. An American journalist is arrested on spy charges, a post-Soviet first. A father is separated from his daughter and sentenced to prison after the child is reported for drawings lamenting Russia's war against Ukraine.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Scare Tactics

Since he unleashed the large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Putin and other officials have issued frequent reminders of a fact that cannot fail to affect decisions and actions by Kyiv, Moscow, the West, and more: Russia has nuclear weapons.

While mostly maintaining a level of deniability, Russian authorities have repeatedly raised the specter of the potential use of nuclear weapons -- whether it's a slavering state-TV pundit, former President Dmitry Medvedev fantasizing aloud about bombing the Bundestag in Berlin, or Putin announcing he has ordered new nuclear missiles to be put on combat duty.

Such signaling and saber-rattling is not new. It dates back long before the 2022 invasion, because Russia's nuclear arsenal has always been its best argument for being treated like a superpower, or something close to it, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But the frequency of these remarks seems to have increased over the 13 months since Russian forces invaded Ukraine from the north and east and Russian rockets hit targets across the country on February 24, 2022.

The latest instance, at least for now, came last weekend, when state television released remarks in which Putin said Russia could deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus -- which borders Ukraine and three NATO nations -- by July.

Militarily, analysts said, there would be little point or none at all in Moscow moving some of its estimated 2,000 or so tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus.

"There is no military expediency in this action," Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russia's nuclear arsenal and a senior researcher with the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

So why would Putin say he could do it?

Here are a few potential reasons.

Two Words: Nuclear Weapons

Quite simply, Putin may be eager to keep the words ‘nuclear weapons' on people's lips as much as possible, given that Russia's atomic arsenal is its ace-in-the-hole -- particularly in light of the performance of its conventional forces, which are suffering severe losses and making little progress in Ukraine, a situation underscored by the monthlong battle for the Donbas city of Bakhmut.

"I think the starting point for this is that Russia is on its back foot in the war in Ukraine" so Putin feels Moscow "needs to look like it's being tough," Daniel Speckhard, a former senior NATO official and U.S. ambassador to Belarus, told RFE/RL on March 29. "And I think this was the next way to raise the stakes."

With Ukraine expected to launch a counteroffensive in the coming weeks in a bid to take back more of the territory that Russia has occupied in the east and south, Putin may consider it useful to play the nuclear card – or, more accurately, not play it but flash it in from of his opponents' eyes.

Threat Level Unchanged

At the same time, Putin's statement, and even the dispatch of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, if that does occur, enables the Kremlin to keep the implicit warning prominent without necessarily increasing the level of the threat to Ukraine, NATO, and the West.

As The New York Times put it, analysts "pointed out that even if Russia were to transfer some of its warheads, the action wouldn't substantially change the nuclear threat posed by Russia since it can already target a vast range of territory from inside its own borders." Ukraine directly borders Russia in addition to Belarus, and Russia shares borders with NATO nations Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

U.S. and NATO officials suggested there was no sign of an increased threat of the use of nuclear weapons. NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu called Putin's words "dangerous and irresponsible" but said the alliance has "not seen any changes in Russia's nuclear posture that would lead us to adjust our own."

"We've in fact seen no indication he has any intention to use nuclear weapons, period, inside Ukraine," said U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

Putin's announcement was "first and foremost for their domestic audience, this looking tough part," Speckhard said.

"But it's also a reminder to the West to not get complacent," he added. "You know, they are on their back foot, their conventional forces have been seriously deteriorated and weakened as a result of this war…and so reminding everybody, ‘Hey, we're a nuclear power,' is a way to try to rebalance what feels like an out-of-balance security situation in Europe right now for Russia."

Pressure To Pressure Ukraine

Many analysts say that amid setbacks on the battlefield in Ukraine, Putin is pinning his hopes on U.S. and European support flagging as time passes and on Western calls for Kyiv to make concessions to Moscow -- rather than pursuing its stated goal of taking back all the territory Russia has occupied since 2014, including Crimea -- gaining traction.

"This is an attempt to destabilize the situation, to frighten those people in the West who have a tendency to be frightened," Arkady Moshes, an expert on the foreign policies of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told the Belarus Service.

"This decision looks like a continuation of Putin's blackmail, trying to force Western and NATO countries to make compromises on Ukraine," said Belarusian political analyst Artsyom Shraybman, speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service.

"They are trying to demonstrate that Russia can still raise the stakes in ways that would be dangerous for the West. It is an ultimatum to the West, and Belarus is barely even a player."

Rope Belarus To Russia

"Barely even a player" is an assessment that points to another potential motive for Putin, placing the possible positioning of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus in the context of Moscow's continuing efforts to increase its control over the far smaller neighboring country that is the closest thing it has to an ally.

On paper, Russia and Belarus have been joined together in a "Union State" since the 1990s, but that has little substance, and the authoritarian longtime leader of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has resisted steps toward the kind of integration that could make him little more than a provincial governor.

However, Lukashenka's brutal clampdown on dissent following a deeply disputed 2020 election, as well as his support for Russia's war against Ukraine, have alienated millions of Belarusians and further isolated him from the West, pushing Minsk more tightly into Moscow's embrace.

"In my opinion, the whole idea is primarily political -- to demonstrate the strengthening political union between Belarus and Russia," Podvig told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

Pavel Luzin, a defense and foreign policy expert who is a visiting scholar at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in the United States, suggested that if Lukashenka believes he would benefit from the placement of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus, he is mistaken.

"Lukashenka wants Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus...because he thinks that if Russia deploys them, Moscow will depend on him just has he now depends on Moscow," Luzin told the Belarus Service. "He does not understand that if a nuclear weapons storage facility is opened in Belarus, troops will also be located there…. The consequence of a nuclear-weapons storage facility could be the creation of several permanent Russian military bases."

Anything that could bring Belarus closer to direct involvement in a war is unlikely to be popular in Belarus, which suffered massive death and destruction in World War II. Since he came to power in 1994 -- the year Russia began the first of two deadly military campaigns in Chechnya -- a key to Lukashenka's popularity has been the fact that the country has not been at war.

"In the summer of 2022, according to polls, 80 percent of Belarusians opposed the basing of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus. So in terms of domestic politics, this is a problem for Lukashenka," Shraybman said. "Up until now, he has been able to position himself for many Belarusians as the guarantor of peace and security. Now that will be harder."

The deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus would "certainly have an impact on the further subjugation of the country," Speckhard said.

Exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya said the plan violates the constitution "and grossly contradicts the will of the Belarusian people to assume the non-nuclear state status expressed in the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Belarus of 1990."

Like Ukraine and Kazakhstan, Belarus gave up the nuclear weapons stationed on its territory after it gained independence in the Soviet collapse.

They did so under the Budapest Memorandum, a 1994 deal in which Russia, the United States, and Britain agreed to respect the signatories' independence and sovereignty within their existing borders and refrain from the threat or use of force against them -- pledges torn apart by Moscow with its war against Ukraine.

House Of Horrors

The scale of the horror of the Russian state's war on Ukraine has, naturally, overshadowed its continuing clampdown on political opposition, independent media, civil society, and all forms of dissent at home, which has grown even more intense since the February 2022 invasion.

At least two developments this week underscored that intensity.

On March 30, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested Evan Gershkovich, an American reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and accused him of spying. Putin's spokesman claimed without evidence that he was caught "red-handed," but the newspaper said it "vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter."

Gershkovich, 31, is the only U.S. journalist to be arrested on espionage accusations in Russia since the breakup of the U.S.S.R. In 1986, reporter Nicholas Daniloff was detained in Moscow; he was released 20 days later in a swap for an employee of the Soviet UN mission who had been arrested by the FBI on spying charges.

On March 28, a man whose daughter drew an anti-war picture at school was sentenced to two years in prison under a law signed by Putin days after the invasion that criminalizes words and images deemed by the state to discredit the Russian military amid operations abroad.

Aleksei Moskalyov was sentenced in absentia because he had escaped house arrest shortly before the verdict was handed down, but he was arrested in Minsk less than 48 hours later. His daughter Maria, 13, was taken from their home in the city of Tula in December and placed in a state institution.

The father and daughter's troubles started after Maria drew a picture at school last year depicting a woman standing next to a Ukrainian flag and protecting a child from missiles coming from Russia.

The principal reported her to the police, who later found Internet posts in which Moskalyov condemned the war in Ukraine and displayed a caricature of Putin.

OVD-Info, an NGO that monitors arrests and other form of oppression in Russia, posted what it said was a letter Maria wrote to her father expressing love, support, pride, and concern.

"When you feel bad or you worry, I get sick and feel very bad. I believe that everything will be fine and we will be together," she wrote. "I hope for the best and love you very much."

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).

The next edition of The Week In Russia will appear on April 14.


Steve Gutterman

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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About This Newsletter

Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

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