In an apparent attempt to further escalate tensions in Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised Belarus that they will supply nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles to Minsk to bolster their arsenal further.

The nuclear-capable version was confirmed to be given to Belarus. During a meeting in St. Petersburg, Putin had told Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that they would be supplying ballistic and cruise missile systems that could be used “both in conventional and nuclear versions.”

“[A] decision was made in our country: Within the next several months, we will transfer to Belarus the Iskander-M tactical missile systems, which are known to use both ballistic and cruise missiles, both conventional and nuclear,” Putin said.

This comes after Putin claims that NATO had plans to invade Belarus. However, the alliance has made no such claim as NATO does not want to further escalate the situation beyond Ukraine, as it has said for the past four months.

Belarus has been one of Russia’s most staunch allies since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine last February 24. Belarus had been participating in a military exercise with Russia before the attack’s launch, complicating Russia’s war against Kyiv. 

Throughout the invasion, Minsk has been used as a launching platform for Russian forces to enter Ukraine, notably when Russian troops from the Belarusian border advanced to Chornobyl during the initial push to Kyiv.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin meeting with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko at the Constantine Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia (Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons).
President of Russia Vladimir Putin meeting with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko at the Constantine Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia (Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons).

It is still being used as a satellite base for Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine, as confirmed by NATO through their surveillance aircraft. Belarus has also been used as a resupply site for Russian forces. In addition, itas been the launching platform for Russia’s air operations into Ukraine, especially now in the East, where Russia had been gaining ground through the capture of Severodonetsk.

While the gift of these Iskander-M missiles might be a sign of goodwill from Russia, it may also be the case that it is being used as a deterrence mechanism. Reports are surfacing that Putin is “stressed out” over some flights by NATO countries near Belarus’ border, many of which are training to carry nuclear warheads. Russia might be talking about NATO drills customarily carried out by the alliance. However, there is little evidence that these planes have atomic weapons.

“We are very concerned about training flights by the U.S. and NATO airplanes, which practice carrying nuclear warheads and nuclear weapons,” Lukashenko alleged. “Therefore, I ask you to consider an equivalent response to these actions without overdoing it.”

In the same meeting, the Belarusian dictator also requested the Russian dictator if the Kremlin could upgrade their Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jets so that their fleet could carry these nuclear weapons if there is a need to deploy them. Lukashenko said this would help the Belarusian Air Force mirror NATO drills. Putin happily obliged this request and stated that the Su-25s could be fitted with additional gear from Russian aircraft assembly factories and plants. Moreover, Russia also offered to train Belarusian pilots to handle the missiles properly and fly the upgraded Su-25 fighter jets.

It is believed that Belarus has some 67 Su-25 fighter jets in various conditions. SOFREP is currently unsure about how many are combat-ready. However, one can never underestimate Belarus and Russia. The financial details and specifics of the upgrade deal, together with the Iskander-M missiles, were not made public.

One may also ask why the Belarusian dictator wanted the Su-25s to carry nuclear weapons. The MiG-29s, which Belarus also operates, is arguably a much better aircraft to carry these missiles.

Have We Seen the Iskander-M in Action?

Russia used the Iskander-M missiles during the war in Ukraine. While they have not used nuclear warheads in these missiles, these missiles have wreaked havoc over the Ukrainian cities, helping destroy massive weapons depots and killing civilians along the way.

The Iskander-Ms is powered by a solid-fuel rocket motor enabling them to have a range of over 300 miles while reaching speeds of Mach 6 to 7. However, these missiles can carry over 1,500 pounds of payload, making them extremely destructive. 

Aside from conventional and nuclear warheads, Iskander-Ms can also carry cluster munitions, vacuum bombs, bunker-busters, and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) warheads. Some 100 units of these missiles were launched into Ukraine during the first hours of the invasion.

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Belarus has been a nuclear-free and “neutral” state, as stated in its constitution. However, they held a referendum last February to change these declarations, possibly in preparation for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, the Iskander “M” variant was initially unavailable for export. It was supposed to be for Russia’s exclusive use only, meaning Belarus must be a very “special” friend of the Kremlin.

Combat launching of the Iskander-M in the Kapustin Yar proving ground (Mil.ru, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons).
Combat launching of the Iskander-M in the Kapustin Yar proving ground (Mil.ru, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons).

SOFREP reported last March that the Iskander-M missiles were found to have “dart-like” munitions that were unexploded littering Ukrainian soil. We later discovered that these munitions were decoys meant to trick heat-seeking missiles that aimed to shoot them down. Each decoy was determined to have electronics that could produce radio signals to jam air defense radars and emanate heat so they could draw anti-missile munitions away from the actual missile. Thus, these Iskander-Ms are incredibly effective at hitting their targets successfully as they have been using penetration aids.

With the security environment in Europe now changing with NATO bolstering up its eastern flank with more troops and equipment from the United States, as well as with Sweden and Finland joining NATO, Russia continues to posture up its paper army against the most advanced military alliance in history. That might not be a good idea for the Kremlin, but Moscow seems increasingly desperate as their war in Ukraine continues to rage on.

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