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Putin to put tactical nukes in Belarus, with PRC’s apparent approval
PRC diplomats, state media may be hinting (again) that Belarus is a part of Russia.
Vladimir Putin has announced he will put tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus by this summer. In addition to posing obvious proliferation risks, the move poses uncertain consequences for Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko may calculate that Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory are ultimately in his interest. He may assume that local nuclear weapons reduce the probability of a so-called “color revolution.” Alternatively, Lukashenko may genuinely believe that Belarus faces the threat of a conventional NATO invasion, and that in-country nuclear weapons provide a deterrent against this phantom threat. Lukashenko, as we’ve seen with other dictators, may have an information diet that is not conducive to understanding reality.
Lukashenko could also regard the deployment of nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory as a threatening development, however. Putin conceivably could create a political pretext in Belarus and demand that Russian armed forces “secure” the nuclear weapons in any chaos. Moreover, the nuclear weapons deployment will require hundreds (thousands?) of additional Russian personnel on Belarusian soil, creating counterintelligence risks for Lukashenko. Finally, the additional, permanent deployment of Russian forces will sit uneasily with some Belarusian nationalists.
I’ve tended to regard Minsk’s formation of a new 100,000 – 150,000 strong “volunteer” military force as a very worrisome development for Ukraine and other Western countries. That may very well be the case: there is a significant risk that Lukashenko will formally enter the war on Russia’s side. Still, it’s important to acknowledge the limitations of available information, think probabilistically, reason empathetically (not sympathetically), and try to place one’s self in Alexander Lukashenko’s shoes. Lukashenko is threatened not only by the West, but also by his other partner in the Union State. Lukashenko may have announced the “volunteer” military force mobilization, in part, because he is increasingly concerned about Moscow’s designs and seeking to dilute the influence of new Russian deployments in the country. Interestingly, Belarusian state media seems to be downplaying the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in the country.
Beijing also certainly knew about the nuclear weapons deployment ahead of time. Beijing and Moscow have conducted an extraordinary amount of high-level bilateral visits in recent weeks, while Belarus has been at the center of some very odd activity involving the PRC (as The Report noted in early March), including a state visit by Lukashenko to Beijing from February 28th to March 2nd.
In recent days, the PRC’s authoritative diplomatic and state media apparatus, after a year-long hiatus, have resumed dropping hints that they consider Belarus to be a part of Russia. More below.
I wonder if Beijing regards Belarus-and-Russia as something of a template vis-à-vis Taiwan. That’s another discussion for another day, however. Thanks for reading. If you find this analysis valuable, please like and share this post. I seek to help shed light on these very important issues.
- Joe Webster, Atlantic Council/China-Russia Report
Table of Contents:
Chinese diplomats, authoritative state media decline to distinguish between Belarus and Russia
China and the war
China’s diplomatic efforts
China and the Saudi – Iranian talks
Russian reactions to the Saudi Arabia – Iran agreement
1) Chinese diplomats, authoritative state media decline to distinguish between Belarus and Russia
Foreign experts talk about the two sessions | Belarusian scholars: look forward to the results of the two sessions to promote the development and exchanges in the field of international education [Chinese-language article, included under the Russia-related section of the People’s Daily on March 14, 2023]
The National Two Sessions in 2023 have come to a successful conclusion, and international attention and discussions on China's Two Sessions remain undiminished. Dr. Dasha, a foreign teacher majoring in Belarusian language at the School of Russian Language, Xi'an International Studies University, said in an exclusive interview with International Online that as a worker in the field of education, she is very much looking forward to the results of this year's two sessions in China to further promote the development of international education and sure that people of Belarus and China secure more opportunities for exchanges.
“Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying announced:
At the invitation of President Xi Jinping, Belarusian President Lukashenko will pay a state visit to China from February 28 to March 2.”
Comment: Note that there is no other inclusion of Belarus on the “China-Russia Relations” page between this article and a January 10, 2022 article below. The PRC Embassy apparently deleted a January 20, 2022 phone call between Lukashenko and Xi.
The Chinese Embassy in Russia is now including some Belarus-related updates in its Russia “related news” section. This could reflect simple carelessness, as the Chinese word for Russia (俄罗斯) is similar to Belarus (白俄罗斯, literally “White Russia”). There are reasons to think the placement is intentional, however. Belarus has not been included in this section’s updates going back to 2016, and the Belarus-related articles have been in place at least a week, and probably since January 10th. I don’t know what, if anything, the PRC is implying, but it does not appear to be good news for Belarusian sovereignty – or Alexander Lukashenko.
Comment: Last year, I fortunately took a screen shot of the PRC embassy’s webpage, which included an article on a phone call between Xi and Lukashenko on the 30th anniversary of China-Belarusian relation. Why did the PRC embassy in Russia delete the 30th anniversary call but not the call below? I obviously don’t know, but, interestingly, the January 20th piece referenced “our joint leadership [在我们共同引领下]” in the Xi-Lukashenko call. Other bilateral calls around this time were much less supportive of Lukashenko’s personal political position.
Also, I think the analysis in that article (largely) held up well, although I overestimated the probability that Putin would strike amid the Olympics. Still, I’m very grateful that Putin waited until after the Olympic Games to launch the invasion, in accordance with the PRC’s preferences. The delay may have allowed Ukraine to sufficiently strengthen its defenses and could prove much more significant than many realize.
On the afternoon of January 10, 2022, President Xi Jinping had a telephone conversation with President Lukashenko of Belarus.
Xi Jinping pointed out that it is a great pleasure to talk with you on the phone at the beginning of the new year. The past year is of great significance to both China and Belarus. I am willing to maintain close communication with you through various forms to promote the continuous development of China-Belarus relations.
Xi Jinping emphasized that this year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Belarus. Over the past 30 years, China-Belarus relations have achieved fruitful results. The two parties have become comprehensive strategic partners with mutual trust and win-win cooperation. The cooperation between the two parties to jointly build the "Belt and Road" has been steadily advancing. The bilateral trade volume has increased by 50 times in the past 30 years, set up a model of friendly exchanges and mutually beneficial cooperation between countries. China is willing to work together with Belarus to take the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries as a new starting point to enhance political mutual trust between the two sides, deepen mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries, and promote the China-Belarus comprehensive strategic partnership to continuously achieve new results. The two sides should expand the scale of bilateral trade, strengthen cooperation in innovation, green, digital development and other fields, and ensure the stable operation and sustainable development of the China-Europe Railway Express. The two sides should continue to strengthen vaccine cooperation.
Xi Jinping emphasized that the current international and regional situation is complex and evolving. China and Belarus have effectively cooperated in the United Nations and other multilateral occasions, firmly supported each other in safeguarding their own core interests, and reflected the strategic value of China-Belarus cooperation. Under the new situation, the two sides should continue to cooperate closely, practice genuine multilateralism, maintain the international system with the United Nations at its core and the international order based on international law, and safeguard international fairness and justice. China opposes external forces interfering in Belarus' internal affairs, and as always supports Belarus in pursuing a development path that suits its own national conditions. The two sides should advocate the common values of all mankind, guide the international community to establish a correct view of democracy and human rights, and promote the implementation of global development initiatives and the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Lukashenko once again congratulated the centenary of the Communist Party of China. Lukashenko said that the Belarusian people have always had sincere and friendly feelings towards the Chinese people, and thanked China for its firm political and moral support to Belarus. Under the current profound and complex evolution of the international and regional situation, the Belarusian side hopes to maintain close communication and coordination with the Chinese side. Belarus is willing to take the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Belarus and China this year as an opportunity to elevate Belarus-China relations to a new level. It hopes to work together with China to develop the Belarus-China Industrial Park and deepen cooperation in the fields of anti-epidemic, traditional Chinese medicine, trade investment, and education. . Belarus will always be China's staunch cooperative partner. I wish the Chinese people a happy Spring Festival!
Comment: This article was notable for the lack of support for Lukashenko’s personal position.
习近平指出，很高兴在新年伊始同你通电话。刚刚过去的一年对中白两国都具有重要意义。我愿通过多种形式同你保持密切沟通，推动中白关系不断向前发展。[Note the use of the informal, more familiar “你” vs the more formal “您”. Xi also uses “你” when addressing Putin, however, so I wouldn’t read too much into this use of grammar, necessarily.]
Putin and tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus
The proposal from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, talked of since last year, would be provocative without changing the West’s battlefield calculus in Ukraine.
Comment: TASS isn’t reporting this threat from Putin, likely because it plays poorly to outside audiences. This provocation may be an opportunity for Western public diplomacy to highlight the aggressor in this conflict.
NATO on Sunday criticised Vladimir Putin for what it called his "dangerous and irresponsible" nuclear rhetoric, a day after the Russian president said he planned to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.
Putin likened the move on Saturday to the U.S. stationing its weapons in Europe, while insisting that Russia would not violate its nuclear non-proliferation promises.
2) China and the war
According to "Russia Today" (RT) reports, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden released data on the 13th local time showing that the United States and European Union countries have continuously sent large quantities of military equipment to Ukraine during the Ukraine crisis. , making Ukraine the third largest arms importer in the world in 2022, after Qatar and India.
According to the institute, in the past five years, Ukraine was only the 14th largest arms importer in the world, accounting for only about 2% of the global total.
The research report shows that in the past five years, the overall level of global arms transfers has dropped by 5.1%, but the arms imports of European countries have increased significantly by 47%, and the growth rate of European NATO countries has even reached 65%.
Peter Weitzman, a senior fellow at the Institute, pointed to the sharp rise in the level of arms transfers in Europe as a result of tensions between Russia and most European countries. "European countries now want to import more weapons faster," he said.
According to RT, Russia and the United States are still the world's largest arms exporters. Over the past five years, Russian arms sales have fallen 31 percent, while U.S. sales have risen 14 percent.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries in the Middle East have all ranked among the top ten arms importers in the world in the past five years, and most of the weapons (about 54%) are provided by the United States.
The incident of a Russian fighter jet allegedly colliding with a US drone has attracted global attention, with growing worries over increasing direct confrontation between Russia and the US over the Ukraine crisis. Analysts said the incident may not escalate as both the US and Russia do not want it to get out of control, but the risks of similar incidents may increase if the US keeps up its frequent and aggressive global reconnaissance globally.
Comment: Russia’s apparently unintentional (it’s too soon to say definitively) downing of an unmanned drone will have implications for air interactions between the PRC, Taiwan, and Japan. Unmanned systems could theoretically monitor PRC patrols at lower cost and risk than manned fighter jets. Establishing a precedent that unmanned systems can be destroyed at little consequence could therefore have important implications for Taiwan, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea.
3) China’s diplomatic efforts
Xi’s aims in mediating Russia-Ukraine talks appear to be fivefold: establish China as a leading, potentially indispensable, diplomatic force; maintain Russian President Vladimir Putin atop the power vertical and ensure Russia’s continuing pro-Beijing alignment; prevent further deterioration to technological, political, and economic ties with Europe; create or exploit fissures within the Western alliance system and between the West and the developing world; and enable a more conducive external economic environment. Xi’s objectives are achievable, but often in clear tension with one another.
Through the past ten years, Xi has put forward a host of major initiatives and proposals, including building a community with a shared future for mankind, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the common values of humanity, the Global Development Initiative and the Global Security Initiative. The core message of these initiatives is that countries are interdependent, mankind have a shared future, and the international community must get united for cooperation.
China believes that global governance should be promoted in accordance with the law and the principles of international law enshrined in the UN Charter; equity and justice must be upheld while hegemonism and selfish interests must be rejected; solidarity must be defended while division and confrontation must be abandoned.
People in developing countries are entitled to a better life, and developing countries are entitled to greater representation and a louder voice in international affairs.
Comment: Western countries are doing a poor job of pushing back against this narrative. Substantively, Beijing’s reckless failure to control COVID in the early days of the virus gravely harmed the economic and financial health of the developing world; Putin’s illegal and brutal invasion of Ukraine similarly raised world commodity prices and poverty rates. But Beijing and Moscow are finding success in pushing their narratives through the developing world, as Thane Gustafson shows in his discussion of fertilizer markets.
4) China and the Saudi – Iranian talks
China honestly fulfilled its duties of a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia, achieving a major diplomatic breakthrough the Middle East, China’s top diplomat was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera.
Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party Wang Yi welcomed the agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh, which followed bilateral talks, held in Beijing on March 6-10.
"The success of these talks is the victory of dialogue, the victory of peace, and it brings us major good news in the current turbulent world," Wang Yi was quoted as saying.
Iran’s Tasnim news agency reported on Friday that Iran and Saudi Arabia had agreed to normalize bilateral relations and planned to open embassies within two months. Iranian and Saudi diplomats had held talks in Beijing for several days, after which a trilateral statement was adopted. The statement says that the countries are committed to the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs and plan to resume cooperation in the areas of trade, economy, culture, science and technology.
Relations between Riyadh and Tehran became strained in March 2015 after a Saudi-led coalition had launched a military operation in Yemen against the Ansar Allah (Houthi) movement. Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Iran in January 2016 after its embassy in Tehran and a consulate in Mashhad were attacked by crowds protesting against the execution in Riyadh of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric.
5) Russian reactions to the Saudi Arabia – Iran agreement
Moscow welcomes Riyadh’s growing interest in solving regional issues and problems on the global agenda, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Thursday.
Opening talks with his Saudi counterpart Faisal Bin Farhan Al Saud in Moscow, Lavrov said, "We welcome the recently increased interest on the part of Saudi Arabia in playing an active role in solving not only regional issues, but also those problems that stand high on the global agenda."
Russia is satisfied with how its relations with Saudi Arabia have been developing, the Russian foreign minister added. "We do consider them (relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia - TASS) a priority and we have been doing our best to put to practice the top-level agreements being reached between Russian President [Vladimir Putin] and His Majesty King [Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud] of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince [Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud]," Lavrov assured.
Russia’s top diplomat also highlighted the importance of interdepartmental cooperation between Moscow and Riyadh, and said the two countries’ ministries maintained regular communication. "We have been cooperating closely on all these issues with you and I believe that today’s meeting will enable us to coordinate additional steps that would contribute to solving relevant issues," Lavrov concluded.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to normalize relations between the two countries and plan to open embassies within two months, the Tasnim news agency reported on Friday.
According to the report, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, and his Saudi counterpart held talks in Beijing. The talks concluded with a trilateral statement, according to which Tehran and Riyadh have agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations and reopen their respective embassies within two months.
"Following the talks, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have decided to restore diplomatic relations, open embassies and representative bodies within two months," the statement said, according to Tasnim.
The statement said that the agreement on the normalization of relations was finalized at the initiative of Chinese President Xi Jinping and with the mediation of Oman and Iraq, which in April 2021 became a venue for negotiations between Tehran and Riyadh.
"The two countries are committed to the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in each other's internal affairs, and also strive to implement the security treaty signed on April 17, 2001, and the agreement on cooperation in trade, economy, culture, science and technology, which was signed on May 27, 1998," the statement said.
6) Munitions and Energy Potpourri
Besides supporting prior recommendations regarding easing contracts, we also recommend that the United States expand industrial collaboration with allied nations on advanced munitions (e.g. precision-guided munitions) and include allies’ manufacturing bases as part of the U.S. defense industrial base itself. With regards to low-tech munitions manufactured in government-owned, contractor-operated facilities overseen by the Joint Munitions Command, the Department of Defense should fund modernization efforts at facilities. The government should also secure the entire supply chain (particularly metal fabrication supplies), increase audits and formulate specific quality and efficiency data analytics. Finally, it should fund the sustainment of production facilities even after current demand inevitably declines.
Comment: Dr. Banerjee and Dr. Tkach have kindly agreed to an interview. More on munitions later in the week.
With Chinese refineries front and center amid price caps on Russian crude and products exports, this article provides fundamental analysis of Chinese refining markets.
Beijing has had a complicated history with its refiners: it attempted to shutter excess capacity at independent refiners (so-called “teapots”) in the 2000s and early 2010s, only to be largely thwarted by provincial and even county-level governments determined to retain the tax base and employment associated with the facilities. Beijing then acquiesced—to a degree—as it relaxed restrictions on import quotas for independent refineries while continuing to consolidate some of the smaller players. While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has not always achieved its objectives in China’s domestic oil market, it is nevertheless a very active manager, something Western policymakers should consider amid high volumes of Russian crude exports to China.
The big picture: Sanctions and the G7-led price cap are driving more Russian crude barrels to China and India.
New Chinese customs data this week shows that Russia has overtaken Saudi Arabia as the country's biggest oil supplier, Bloomberg reports.
Meanwhile, U.S. crude exports to Europe are at record levels this month, Reuters reported this week, citing Kpler data. There are several reasons why, but one driving force is Europe shunning Russian crude.
The intrigue: This week's meeting in Moscow between Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping is noteworthy for something that didn't happen, despite their growing economic ties.
There wasn't a final deal on the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline from Russia to China — even as Russia seeks markets to replace Europe, once its main buyer.
Between the lines: Beijing is "firmly in the driver's seat" in the relationship with Russia on gas and more broadly, Atlantic Council energy expert Joseph Webster told me.
China has negotiating leverage thanks to "optionality," including liquified natural gas (LNG) from other nations — the U.S. among them — and pipelined supplies.
And Xi inking a deal in Moscow would have been a "huge insult" to Europeans, Webster said. "Xi is willing to push on the relationship with Europe, but he's not willing to break it."
Joe Webster is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and editor of the China-Russia Report. This article represents his own personal opinion.
The China-Russia Report is an independent, nonpartisan newsletter covering political, economic, and security affairs within and between China and Russia. All articles, comments, op-eds, etc represent only the personal opinion of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the position(s) of The China-Russia Report.