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Joint Training Program: Russian and Belarusian Air Force Pilots Learn Advanced Tactics for Su-25 Ground Attack Fighters

A few weeks after Russia announced the development of infrastructure to host tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) in Belarus, both countries have disclosed that Belarusian pilots of the Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack aircraft have completed their training under Russian instructors to operate such weapons. This follows the testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from Kazakhstan’s Kapustin Yar test range in the Astrakhan region on April 12, signaling another round of limited nuclear brinkmanship between Russia and the United States (US). This development also coincides with the US conducting the “nuclear readiness” exercises called Global Thunder 2023 at the Minot Air Force Base. The annual exercise, conducted by the US Strategic Command, is designed to serve as an “effective, deterrent force.”

Russia-Belarus vs US-Europe Russia has a union agreement with Belarus that closely aligns their political, economic, and military policies. Russian troops utilized Belarusian territory to enter Ukraine from the north in February 2022 and have maintained a presence in Belarus. The placement of Russian tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) in Belarus brings them closer to potential targets in Ukraine and NATO members in Eastern and Central Europe, as reported by the Associated Press. Belarus shares a 1,250-kilometer (778-mile) border with NATO members Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. There has been no significant response from the West regarding the TNW issue. Thus far, these actions appear to be deterrent measures aimed at signaling Europe not to escalate the conflict in a manner that threatens Russia’s core territorial sovereignty.

At a broader level, this move can also be seen as a response to Finland joining NATO, which, despite posing no direct threat to Russia, is still perceived as part of Moscow’s decade-long attempts to strategically isolate it. Small weapons, Big Message According to a statement from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), the Aerospace Forces Training Center provided additional training for the “flight and engineering personnel of the Air Force and Air Defense Forces of the Republic of Belarus in the operation and combat utilization of the Su-25 ground-attack aircraft.” The statement, however, did not directly mention TNWs. It stated, “The training included both theoretical courses and practical exercises supervised by experienced Russian instructors, which not only improved the practical skills of the flight personnel but also familiarized them with new methods of utilizing modern aviation weapons, including specialized munitions.” “Specialized munitions” refers to low-yield nuclear weapons.

The term seems to have been intentionally chosen to avoid provoking or alarming the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) while still signaling a credible nuclear deterrent. The statement further mentioned that the training program had been “successfully completed by Belarusian servicemen” and that the new “expertise and skills would contribute to ensuring the military security of the union state.” This aligns with Putin’s earlier statements about the use of nuclear weapons, emphasizing that they would only be employed in the face of a physical, “existential” threat to Russia. A tweet by the Belarusian Ministry of Defense also confirmed the training but did not mention or allude to TNWs, while sharing a video of a pilot discussing the exercises with the Russian instructors. The tweet referred to it as “additional training for the flight and engineering personnel of the Air Force and Air Defense Forces of the Republic of Belarus.” It added, “(The training) has been completed as part of the program for the operation and combat utilization of Su-25 attack aircraft.” Russia Following Up on Nuclear Announcements In late March, Putin stated that the construction of storage facilities for TNWs in Belarus would be finalized by July 1.

In August of the previous year, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko mentioned that Russia had aided in modernizing Belarusian warplanes to make them capable of carrying nuclear weapons and had supplied the country with Iskander short-range missiles that could be equipped with a nuclear warhead. However, Putin clarified that Russia would have control over any nuclear weapons deployed in Belarus in terms of command, control, and the political decision-making process. This is similar to how the US exercises control over its tactical nuclear weapons on the territories of NATO nations. ICBM Test On April 11, 2023, Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile from the Kapustin Yar test range in the Astrakhan region of Kazakhstan. The launch aimed to test “promising combat equipment for intercontinental ballistic missiles. The launch confirmed the effectiveness of the design and technical solutions employed in the new strategic missile systems.” The missile warhead successfully hit a target at the Sary Shagan firing range in Kazakhstan, and all launch objectives were fully achieved.

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