WARSAW, Poland — As Belarus’s involvement in the Russian war against Ukraine continues to push Minsk towards an even closer military cooperation with Moscow, Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko has announced that Russia upgraded his country’s jets to enable them to carry tactical atomic weapons.
“Putin and I once said in St. Petersburg that we will refit Belarusian Sukhoi aircraft among other things so that they could carry nuclear weapons,” the Belarusian dictator said, according to state-owned news agency BelTA, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Do you think we talk nonsense? Everything is ready,” he said.
Last June, during a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Lukashenko asked Putin to modernize his country’s Sukhoi Su-25s to allow them to carry nuclear weapons. The Belarusian authoritarian leader claimed this would enable the country’s air force to mirror NATO drills. During the same meeting, Russia’s leader said his country will provide nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles to Belarus.
The Belarusian military “has a fairly big number of Su-25 planes. They can be respectively re-equipped,” Putin said at the meeting.
Industry publications estimate Belarus operates 67 Su-25 jets which makes the fighter the most prevalent combat aircraft in the country’s fleet.
Marek Jablonowski, a political scientist from the University of Warsaw, told Defense News the Belarusian regime believes that “flexing its military muscles can secure its survival”, and that it is “showing readiness to trade an even bigger part of its sovereignty in exchange for Moscow’s backing.”
Meanwhile, some analysts believe Minsk will mostly use the alleged upgrade for the purpose of its propaganda directed at the West.
“For Putin, to give Lukashenka nuclear weapons is to strengthen him and his position. Not sure he wants it,” tweeted Hanna Liubakova, Belarusian journalist and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank. “The Russian [A]rmy used other airfields (closer to the Ukrainian border) to station its jets and missile launch systems. Those didn’t and won’t belong to the regime in Minsk.”
There are also technical questions surrounding the purported upgrade. “The Su-25 has significant limitations in this role, and this raises questions about the credibility of Russia’s and Belarus’ announcement,” researchers at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies wrote in a paper last month. “Designed as a close air support aircraft, the Su-25 would probably be limited to deliver a nuclear weapon only in free-fall mode” while having lower survivability than comparable NATO, the analysts wrote.
In February 2022, Minsk organized a referendum which enabled the authorities to modify the constitution’s article describing Belarus as a “nuclear-free zone” and a “neutral” state, enabling Russia to deploy additional nuclear weapons along NATO’s eastern flank.
Jaroslaw Adamowski is the Poland correspondent for Defense News.