What Happens if Russia Stashes Nukes in Belarus
And some news about that Kremlin drone strike
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The dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has signed an agreement with Russia to base Russian nuclear weapons in his country. The strategic impact of such a move is negligible, but a lot can go wrong with this foolish plan.
First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:
A Tense Summer
Russia has taken another step toward nuclearizing its satrapy in neighboring Belarus. This is bad news but not a crisis (yet). But first, I want to add a note to what I wrote a few weeks ago about the drone attack on the Kremlin.
I suggested that the weird strike on a Kremlin building was unlikely to be an act sanctioned or carried out by the Ukrainian government. My best guess at the time was that the Russians might be pulling some kind of false-flag stunt to justify more repression and violence against Ukraine as well as internal dissent in Russia. I didn’t think the Ukrainians would attack an empty building in the middle of the night.
The U.S. intelligence community, however, now thinks the strike could have been some kind of Ukrainian special operation. Those same American analysts, according to The New York Times, are not exactly sure who authorized action against the Russian capital:
U.S. intelligence agencies do not know which unit carried out the attack and it was unclear whether President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine or his top officials were aware of the operation, though some officials believe Mr. Zelensky was not.
That’s not much to go on, especially because the intelligence community’s confidence in this view is “low,” meaning there is at least some general, but not specific, evidence for it. The Americans suggest the attack may have been “orchestrated” by the Ukrainian security services, but that could mean any number of possibilities, including civilians, a small militia, a few people loosely affiliated with the Ukrainians, or even a commando team.
The best evidence, however, that this was not a false flag is that with the exception of firing a wave of missiles, the Russian government has said and done almost nothing in response either in Ukraine or in Russia. If Vladimir Putin’s security forces had engineered the incident, they’d almost certainly be taking advantage of it, but they’re not. Instead, the Kremlin seems paralyzed and has clamped down on any further reporting about the whole business; if the Ukrainian goal was to rattle Russian leaders, mission accomplished. So my theory has gone up in smoke—a hazard of trying to piece together an explanation while waiting for better evidence—but I thought it important to update you here.
Now, about those Belarus nukes.
Putin announced back in March that he intended to station nuclear arms in Belarus, a move that had Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko doing a bit of uneasy throat-clearing as he tried to stay in Putin’s good graces while being understandably nervous about hosting weapons of mass destruction in his fiefdom. The hesitation is over: Belarusian Defense Minister Victor Khrenin and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu yesterday signed a formal agreement allowing the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus.
This would be the first time post-Soviet Russia has stationed nuclear weapons outside its own territory, but the bombs aren’t in Belarus yet. Lukashenko was in Moscow yesterday to attend a summit of the Eurasian Economic Forum, and although he claimed that the complicated process of relocating Russian nuclear bombs has already begun, I don’t believe him. (There I go again, theorizing in the absence of evidence. But Western intelligence agencies watch the movement of Russian nuclear weapons pretty closely, and so far, none of them has indicated that they see anything happening.) Besides, Lukashenko’s assertion wasn’t exactly definitive; when asked in Moscow if the weapons had already arrived, he said, “Maybe. I will go and take a look.”
Now, without getting too far over my skis, I will say that the leaders of countries with nuclear weapons in their territory know without exception whether they have them or not, and don’t need to “go and take a look.” Lukashenko’s flip comment suggests to me that he knows that nothing has been moved yet, and that he understands that his role in this dangerous sideshow is to play along with the Kremlin’s attempt to jangle Western nerves about nuclear war.
Putin, for his part, has said that storage facilities for Russian nuclear arms will be complete by July 1. Nuclear weapons, of course, require highly secure military installations and personnel trained in dealing with such systems, such as how to load them onto their delivery vehicles, and the unique safety precautions that surround them. Even in the best of times, nuclear weapons are a high-maintenance proposition, and accidents do happen: In 2007, an American B-52 flew across the United States with six nuclear bombs that the crew didn’t realize were mounted on the wings.
It’s also possible that Putin is squeezing political impact out of a nuclear agreement while he still can, given recent questions about Lukashenko’s health. The Belarus strongman has looked weak lately. It would be very much Putin’s gangland style to make sure he gets Belarus as a stage for his nuclear threats as soon as possible, if he thinks the grim reaper is about to step in.
Putin’s July deadline is also important because it means the Russians will be moving nuclear weapons in the middle of what looks to be a summer of intense fighting. Such a timetable is probably intentional. The Kremlin boss believes that the West is deeply afraid of nuclear war, and he intends to play on that fear. Western leaders, of course, are deeply afraid of nuclear war, because they are not utter psychopaths. Putin and his generals, although brutal and vicious men, are afraid of it, too, no matter what they might say, because they are not suicidal. (So were Soviet leaders and their generals, as we learned after the Cold War.)
What Putin fails to understand, however, is that years of struggling with the Soviet Union taught the United States and its allies how to contend with an aggressive Kremlin and the dangers of escalation at the same time. Putin, as I often note, is a Soviet nostalgist who longs for the old Soviet empire and who still seems to believe that a weak and decadent West will not continue to oppose him.
As ever, I worry not about Putin’s deliberate move to start World War III, but about some kind of error or accident when transferring nuclear weapons from one paranoid authoritarian country to another. Putin may well place nuclear weapons close to Ukraine and then claim that NATO is threatening Russia’s nuclear deterrent, thus provoking a crisis he thinks will induce the West to back away from supporting Kyiv. This would be yet another harebrained blunder in a series of poor moves, but Putin, as we know, is not exactly a master strategist. It’s going to be a tense summer.
- A South Carolina circuit-court judge has temporarily blocked the state’s six-week abortion ban, one day after Governor Henry McMaster signed it into law.
- A House committee led by Texas Republicans recommended the impeachment of State Attorney General Ken Paxton yesterday, citing years of alleged lawbreaking and misconduct.
- The Mississippi police officer who shot Aderrien Murry, an unarmed 11-year-old Black boy, has been suspended with pay as the shooting is investigated.
- Work in Progress: The hottest trend in investing is mostly a sham, James Surowiecki writes.
The Books Briefing: Books editor Gal Beckerman breaks down what you should be reading this summer—just in time for the season’s unofficial start.
Explore all of our newsletters here.
A Chinese American Show That Doesn’t Bother to Explain Itself
By Shirley Li
Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I dreaded having new visitors over. I wasn’t asocial; I just feared that anyone who wasn’t Chinese—as in, the majority of my classmates—wouldn’t understand my family home and all of its inevitable differences from their own. Even if they didn’t ask me about the cultural objects they might stumble upon around the house, I felt the need to explain what they were seeing, in order to make them comfortable. We have this taped to the wall because it’s the Chinese character for fortune! These hard-boiled eggs are brown because they’ve been soaked in tea! In an attempt to prove that my surroundings were perfectly normal, I turned myself into a tour guide, and my own home into a sideshow.
American Born Chinese doesn’t bother with such disclaimers. The Disney+ show, now streaming, is exuberant and unabashed about its hyper-specific focus on the Chinese American experience.
More From The Atlantic
Watch. Yellowjackets’ Season 2 finale (streaming on Showtime) made a terrible mistake.
Listen. To the first episode of the newly launched Radio Atlantic podcast with host Hanna Rosin, on whether the war in Ukraine can recapture the world’s attention at a crucial moment.
This is my last Daily for the next week or so, as I am headed off for some sunshine and downtime, but senior editor Isabel Fattal and our colleagues at The Atlantic will keep things as lively here as ever. (This newsletter will be off on Monday for Memorial Day, so look for the next edition on Tuesday.)
With vacation on my mind, I want to recommend a gem of a movie about Las Vegas that has lived in the shadow of Martin Scorsese’s Casino (an undeniable masterpiece) for too long. Twenty years ago, William H. Macy, Maria Bello, and Alec Baldwin starred in The Cooler, one of the bleakest movies about Sin City since Leaving Las Vegas. Macy plays a “cooler,” a guy whose bad luck is so contagious that the casinos hire him to stand near people who win too much money at the tables.
It’s a love story and a crime story, but it’s also about old Vegas becoming a new (and sillier) Vegas. Back then, developers were making an inane attempt to transform an industry mostly devoted to gambling, booze, and sex into a theme park for families. Alec Baldwin—who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor—rails against it all in a rant about the Strip circa 2002: “You mean that Disneyland mook fest out there? Huh? That’s a fucking violation is what that is. Something that used to be beautiful, used to have class, like a gorgeous high-priced hooker with an exclusive clientele … It makes me want to cry, because I remember the way she used to be.”
I cheer him on every time. See you in a few weeks.
Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.