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Enhancing Combat Skills: Russia Assists Belarus in Training Su-25 Fighter Pilots

A few weeks after Russia announced the development of infrastructure to establish operational bases for 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 handle such weapons. This comes after the recent test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from Kazakhstan’s Kapustin Yar test range in the Astrakhan region on April 12, marking another round of limited nuclear brinkmanship between Russia and the United States (US).

These developments also coincide with the US conducting the “Global Thunder 2023” exercises, focusing on nuclear readiness, at the Minot Air Force Base. The annual exercise, organized by the US Strategic Command, is aimed at maintaining an effective deterrent force. Russia-Belarus vs US-Europe Russia and Belarus have a union agreement that aligns their political, economic, and military policies to a significant extent. Russian troops utilized Belarusian territory to enter Ukraine from the north in February 2022 and have since maintained a presence in Belarus. Placing Russian TNWs in Belarus brings them closer to potential targets in Ukraine and NATO members in Eastern and Central Europe, according to an Associated Press report. Belarus shares a 1,250-kilometer (778-mile) border with NATO members Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

The West has not responded with alarm or any significant reaction to the TNW issue. Thus far, the actions appear to be deterrent measures signaling Europe not to escalate the conflict in a manner that threatens Russia’s core territorial sovereignty. At a broader level, this can also be interpreted as a response to Finland’s decision to join NATO, which, despite posing no direct threat to Russia, is perceived as another attempt to strategically isolate Moscow over the past decade. Small Weapons, Big Message As per a statement from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), the Aerospace Forces Training Centre conducted 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 use of the Su-25 ground-attack aircraft.” However, the statement did not directly mention TNWs.

It stated, “The training included both theoretical courses and practical exercises under the supervision of experienced Russian instructors, which not only improved the practical skills of the flight personnel but also familiarized them with new ways of utilizing modern aviation weapons, including specialized munitions.” “Specialized munitions” refers to low-yield nuclear weapons. The term seems deliberately chosen to avoid provoking or alarming the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) while still conveying a credible nuclear deterrent. The statement further affirmed that Belarusian servicemen had “fully mastered” the training program, and their new expertise and skills would be utilized to safeguard the military security of the union state. This aligns with President Putin’s earlier statements on the employment of nuclear weapons, emphasizing their use only in the face of a physical or “existential” threat to Russia. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense also confirmed the training in a tweet, without mentioning or hinting at TNWs, and shared a video of a pilot discussing the exercises with 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 that the training was completed under the program for the operation and combat use of Su-25 attack aircraft.

Russia’s Continued Nuclear Pursuits In late March, Putin stated that 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 assisted in modernizing Belarusian warplanes to enable them to carry nuclear weapons and had provided Iskander short-range missiles that could be equipped with nuclear warheads. Putin clarified that Russia would exercise control over any nuclear weapons deployed to Belarus, including command and control as well as the political decision-making chain. This mirrors the way the US controls its tactical nuclear weapons on the territories of NATO nations. ICBM Test On April 11, 2023, Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces successfully conducted the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile from the Kapustin Yar test range in the Astrakhan region of Kazakhstan. The objective of the launch was to test “promising combat equipment for intercontinental ballistic missiles” and validate the efficiency of the design and technical solutions used in new strategic missile systems. The missile warhead successfully hit a target at the Sary Shagan firing range in Kazakhstan, achieving all the planned objectives of the launch.

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