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Strategic Partnership: Russia Provides Specialized Training to Belarusian Su-25 Ground Attack Fighter Pilots

A few weeks after Russia announced the development of infrastructure to house tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) in Belarus, both nations have disclosed that Belarusian pilots of the Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack aircraft have completed their training under Russian instructors to operate such weaponry. This follows the testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from the Kapustin Yar test range in Kazakhstan’s Astrakhan region on April 12, marking another episode of minor nuclear brinkmanship between Russia and the United States (US). This development occurs amidst the US conducting the Global Thunder 2023 “nuclear readiness” exercises at the Minot Air Force Base.

The annual exercise, organized by the US Strategic Command, is also aimed at serving as 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 large extent. Russian troops utilized Belarusian territory to enter Ukraine from the north in February 2022 and have maintained a presence in Belarus. The decision to station Russian tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) in Belarus brings them closer to potential targets in Ukraine and NATO member countries 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. The response from the West to the TNW issue has not been alarming so far.

The current actions appear to be deterrent measures aimed at signaling Europe not to escalate the conflict in a way that threatens Russia’s fundamental territorial sovereignty. At a broader level, it can also be seen as a reaction to Finland’s decision to join NATO, which, despite posing no direct threat to Russia, is still perceived as part of the decade-long efforts to strategically isolate Moscow. Small Weapons, Significant Message According to a statement from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), the Aerospace Forces Training Centre conducted additional training for the “flight and engineering staff 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 explicitly mention TNWs. It stated, “The training included both a theoretical course and practical exercises under the supervision of experienced Russian instructors, which not only improved the practical skills of the flight personnel but also introduced new methods of using modern aviation weapons, including specialized munitions.” “Specialized munitions” refer to low-yield nuclear weapons.

The term seems to have been deliberately chosen to avoid provoking or alarming the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) while signaling a credible nuclear deterrent. The statement further mentioned that the training program has been “fully completed by Belarusian servicemen” and that the newly acquired “expertise and skills will be utilized to ensure the military security of the union state.” This aligns with Putin’s previous statements about the use of nuclear weapons, where he specified that they would be employed only in the face of a physical, “existential” threat to Russia. A tweet from the Belarusian MoD confirmed the training but did not mention or allude to TNWs, instead posting a video of a pilot discussing the exercises with the Russian instructors. The tweet referred to it as “additional training of the flight and engineering staff of the air force and air defense forces of the Republic of Belarus.” It added, “(The training) has been completed under the program for the operation and combat use of Su-25 attack aircraft.” Russia Follows Up on Nuclear Developments In late March, Putin stated that the construction of storage facilities for TNWs in Belarus would be finished by July 1.

Last year, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko mentioned that Russia assisted in modernizing Belarusian warplanes to accommodate nuclear weapons and supplied Iskander short-range missiles that could be equipped with nuclear warheads. Putin, however, clarified that Russia would maintain control over any nuclear weapons deployed in Belarus in terms of command, control, and the political decision-making process. 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 launched an intercontinental ballistic missile from the Kapustin Yar test range in Kazakhstan’s Astrakhan region. 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 targeted a location at the Sary Shagan firing range in Kazakhstan, and the launch achieved all of its objectives.

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