Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest round of nuclear saber-rattling has drawn concern and condemnation from the West, but his pledge to place tactical nukes in Belarus may do more to expose the Kremlin’s weakness than change the dynamics of the war in Ukraine.

Putin’s announcement that he would deploy weapons on the territory of Moscow’s neighbor and trusted ally, which comes as Russia’s military struggles to claim new battlefield successes, was called «dangerous and irresponsible» by the NATO, while Kiev saying threatened «the international security system as a whole.»

But the move is likely just the latest attempt to use nuclear threats to intimidate Ukraine’s allies, military analysts told NBC News, and may not only widen the widening chasm between Moscow and the West, but also put test Russia’s growing friendship with China.

Putin made the announcement in an interview that aired on Russian state television late Saturday, where he said he was storing his country’s tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, which borders three NATO members as well as Russia and Ukraine. , did not violate nuclear non-proliferation agreements and will, in fact, reflect Washington’s parking of nuclear weapons in Europe for decades.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a staunch ally whom Putin supported after violent protests nearly toppled «Europe’s last dictator» in 2020, had long called for the move, Putin added.

The Belarusian leader himself took almost a week to respond, saying in an address to the nation on Friday that he had intensified talks with Putin «on the return of nuclear weapons to Belarus» to «safeguard» his country, which he said was under threat of invasion from the west.

Belarus, which has no nuclear weapons of its own after transferring stock it inherited from the Soviet era to Russia in the 1990s, is not officially a party to the Ukraine war, although its territory was used by Moscow to launch the full-scale war. invasion last year.

But pledging to place his tactical nukes there will not give Putin any real battlefield advantage in Ukraine, said Andrey Baklitskiy, a senior fellow at the Geneva-based United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.

“This move would not give Russia any capabilities that it didn’t have before,” Baklitskiy told NBC News. «Until now, nuclear weapons have only played a political and informational role in the war, so all parties will use this decision as a talking point.»

Russia will claim it is supporting an ally, accuse the West of hypocrisy over the NATO nuclear exchange and put some pressure on the West, Baklitskiy added, while Ukraine and NATO will condemn Russia’s nuclear saber rattling and try to shore up support. international to put pressure on Moscow. .

Russia has the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world, with about 6,000 nuclear warheads, according estimates from the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based nonprofit policy research and advocacy organization.

Putin has repeatedly vowed that he will not hesitate to unleash this arsenal should Russia’s security or existence be threatened, and has on occasion escalated those threats in the face of major setbacks.

Given the lack of major advances in Russia’s current ground offensive, its nuclear arsenal remains one of the few aspects of its military power that still commands some respect in the West, said Christopher Tuck, a conflict and security expert at King’s College. London.

Putin’s latest nuclear rhetoric replicates «an existing Russian pattern of resorting to vague nuclear policy announcements to divert attention from difficulties in other areas,» Tuck added.

«The likely intent is to manipulate Western fears of a nuclear escalation and through this try to contribute to a process of eroding Western support for Ukraine.»

Putin’s decision on Belarus is an admission that he «is afraid of losing,» Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said in a cheep last Sunday. “All he can do is scare tactics,” Podolyak added.

So far, Washington and its allies have been critical but measured in their responses to Putin’s comments.

Both the National Security Council and the State Department told NBC News in separate statements that the United States «had seen no reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture nor any indication that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon.» .

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, President Joe Biden called Putin’s plans «troubling.»

And while NATO criticized Putin’s comments, it echoed Washington in saying it has seen no change in Russia’s nuclear posture that would lead it to adjust its own.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called Putin’s intentions a «threat to European security» and said the EU stands ready to respond with more sanctions.

The West’s reaction will not change Putin’s plans, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday.

The joint military exercises of Russia and Belarus continue
Tactical ballistic missiles are fired during joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises in Gomel, Belarus, last February.Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The threats come amid broader nuclear tensions, with the last remaining arms control treaty between the United States and Russia collapsing.

The United States said on Tuesday that it will withhold some nuclear data from Russia in response to Moscow’s decision not to provide the data required by the New START Treaty. Putin unilaterally suspended Russia’s participation in the treaty in February.

Russia and China have criticized the United States, Britain and Australia for reaching a deal on nuclear-powered submarines, but experts said Putin’s move in Belarus could also drive a wedge into that burgeoning alliance.

The Belarus announcement could also draw attention in Beijing after China’s leader Xi Jinping visited Moscow last week in a show of support for the increasingly isolated Kremlin, said William Alberque, director of strategy, technology and monitoring. of arms of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. .

Putin and Xi issued a joint statement saying that all nuclear powers must not station nuclear weapons outside their national territories and must withdraw all nuclear weapons stationed abroad.

When asked about Putin’s comments on Belarus on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning reiterated Beijing’s stance, calling for a political settlement in Ukraine and avoiding a nuclear crisis.

However, if Xi was not consulted about Putin’s announcement, it might cause him to reconsider the basis for cooperation with Russia in the future, Alberque said.