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Unlocking New Capabilities: Belarusian Air Force Pilots Trained in Tactical Operations for Su-25 Fighters

A few weeks after Russia announced the development of infrastructure to establish operational bases for tactical nuclear weaponry (TNW) 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 munitions.

This comes in the wake of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test conducted at the Kapustin Yar test range in Kazakhstan’s Astrakhan region on April 12, signaling another round of subtle nuclear power plays between Russia and the United States (US).

Furthermore, this development coincides with the US’s ongoing “nuclear readiness” exercises called Global Thunder 2023 at the Minot Air Force Base. The annual exercise, organized by the US Strategic Command, is intended to serve as an “effective deterrent force.”

Russia-Belarus versus US-Europe Russia and Belarus have a union agreement that aligns their political, economic, and military policies to a significant extent. In February 2022, Russian troops utilized Belarusian territory to enter Ukraine from the north and have since maintained a presence in Belarus.

By deploying Russian TNWs in Belarus, they are brought closer to potential targets in Ukraine and NATO member countries in Eastern and Central Europe, according to an Associated Press report on the matter. Belarus shares a 1,250-kilometer (778-mile) border with NATO members Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

The Western response to the TNW issue has been relatively calm, unlike previous instances. Thus far, these actions seem like precautionary measures meant to signal Europe not to escalate the conflict in a manner that threatens Russia’s core territorial integrity.

On a broader scale, it 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 a continuation of Moscow’s decade-long efforts to strategically isolate it.

Small Munitions, Significant Message According to a statement from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), the Aerospace Forces Training Center 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.”

Although the TNWs were not explicitly mentioned, the statement acknowledged that the training included mastering new ways of employing modern aviation weaponry, including special munitions, under the supervision of experienced Russian instructors. “Special munitions” refers to low-yield nuclear weapons. The choice of terminology appears deliberate, aiming to avoid provoking or alarming NATO while signaling a credible nuclear deterrent.

The statement also highlighted that Belarusian servicemen have fully mastered the training program, and the newly acquired expertise and skills will be employed to ensure the military security of the union state. This aligns with previous statements by President Putin, where he specified that nuclear weapons would only be used if Russia faces a physical or “existential” threat.

The Belarusian Ministry of Defense confirmed the training through a tweet, which did not mention or allude to TNWs explicitly but shared a video of a pilot discussing the exercises with Russian instructors. The tweet described it as “additional training for the flight and engineering personnel of the air force and air defense forces of the Republic of Belarus” and emphasized its completion under the program for the operation and combat use of Su-25 attack aircraft.

Russia’s Continued Nuclear Pursuits In late March, Putin announced that the construction of storage facilities for TNWs in Belarus would be finalized by July 1. Additionally, in August of the previous year, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko mentioned that Russia assisted in modernizing Belarusian warplanes to accommodate nuclear weapons and provided the country with Iskander short-range missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads.

Putin clarified that Russia would retain control over any deployed nuclear weapons in Belarus concerning command, control, and the political decision-making process. This parallels the manner in which the US oversees 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 purpose of the launch was to test “promising combat equipment for intercontinental ballistic missiles,” affirming the efficiency of the design and technical solutions employed in the new strategic missile systems.

The missile warhead engaged a target at the Sary Shagan firing range in Kazakhstan, and all launch objectives were successfully accomplished.

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