Exclusive satellite images of Belarus from early September captured secret radiological warfare exercises by an alliance of post-Soviet states, prompting analysts to worry that Russia is committed to hosting nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory.
The intraday images, collected by geospatial intelligence firm BlackSky and then independently verified by specialist defense services firm Preligens, show the radioactive decontamination of a formation of military vehicles at the Bretsky Training Ground, near the borders with both Poland and her Ukraineas part of Exercise Barrier, an exercise designed to prepare ground forces for combat operations in a dangerously irradiated environment.
The evidence from Sept. 2 undermines lingering doubts that the nuclear weapons transfer talks were a political gesture unsubstantiated by tactical preparation. Analysts from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and the Polish Institute of International Relations are examining potential nuclear sites in Belarus that could host warheads under the supervision of Russia’s elite 12th GU MO, the Russian Defense Ministry’s directorate responsible for its nuclear ability.
A description of Exercise Barrier by the CSTO on September 2 states that personnel participated in activities related to biohazard containment. However, the photo in question does not show biohazard preparations, but depicts personnel engaged in practices typical of radiological decontamination, according to William Alberque, director of strategy, technology and arms control at the IISS. A photo from Exercise Barrier shows a soldier in protective clothing marked with Russian insignia standing guard over materials marked as radioactive waste.
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Intraday imaging of the site in Belarus was possible due to the trajectory progress of the BlackSky satellite constellation. Many modern satellite imaging networks use constellations in north-south polar orbits. This is in contrast to BlackSky’s satellites which move in the direction of the Earth’s rotation. The approach results in low latency between image request and retrieval, as at any point in the Earth’s central belts, a BlackSky satellite crosses every hour.
The independent verification of the satellite images was carried out with Preligens, a specialist company for artificial intelligence and machine learning in satellite intelligence.
Exercise Barrier was part of the six-day event Combat Brotherhood 2023, an annual joint training exercise between CSTO member states, including Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. The CSTO’s decision to conduct CBRN radiological exercises in Belarus this year was interpreted as a signal to the analyst community that Russia is serious about transferring nuclear weapons to Belarus. “This is a real low-key signal, to the professionals, that they are thinking about this,” Alberque said.
Russia is known to engage in signaling at separate discrete levels. For domestic audiences, state-owned media companies have been shown to conform to the dissemination of approved narratives. Some actions instead constitute maneuvers, designed to influence the mood of adversaries through propaganda or a show of force prior to a military operation, and will reach a similarly broad audience in the international community. However, Alberque describes the radiological exercises in Belarus as a subtle message intended for an international community of national security experts.
The scale of the exercise barrier was at the tactical level, providing a subtle indication to analysts that Russia’s defense posture is leaning toward placing nuclear weapons in Belarus, according to analysts consulted for this article. If the exercises were at a strategic level – disinfecting thousands of vehicles every hour – the messages would be designed to reach a wider audience. However, Alberk is no less moved by the discreet nature of the signal: “The first warning light just went off. Now do you ignore it and pretend your engine is fine or wait for the engine to fail?’
While the leaders of Russia and Belarus have in the past made extreme statements suggesting that nuclear weapons would be transferred, and remarks 9K720 Iskander missiles capable of carrying the warheads have been observed at sites on Belarusian territory, it appears that the construction of the prerequisite transfer requirement for the transfer of a nuclear capability has not been pursued by either country, raising doubts about the transfer.
The perception among national security analysts familiar with the region is that the talks about transferring nuclear weapons to Belarus were a strategy for Russian military forces to enter the neighbor’s territory. Ostensibly these troops would act as operators and custodians of the nuclear capability, but in reality visiting Russian personnel from Russia’s 12th GU MO would be rooting to extend Putin’s political control over Belarus, while zero nuclear weapons would be transferred.
Anna Dyner, an international security analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, stresses that placing nuclear weapons in Belarus would pose a permanent security risk to the country. “For Belarus itself, I think there are no benefits for it, I’m sorry to say,” Dyner comments when asked about the drivers of Russian nuclear weapons development in Belarus. “It even causes them serious danger. Thinking only about contingency planning and so on… will cause a reaction from the NATO side, so it means that the territory of Belarus will be a target.”
However, decisions to conduct radiological exercises in Belarus affect how national security analysts calculate the potential threat landscape.
Signaling to the intelligence community that nuclear weapons are present in Belarus is less about rattling and belligerent posturing and more about adding rungs to the scale of escalation, according to Alberque. Without necessarily escalating the nuclear threat, nuclear security experts reckon, Exercise Barrier gives Russia more options for de-escalation and to demand corresponding concessions from its adversaries.
Dyner emphasizes this aspect of Russian design, stressing the importance of a announcement in June from the Russian Foreign Ministry stating that Russia would be ready to withdraw its nuclear warheads from Belarus if the US decided to withdraw its nuclear warheads from German soil.
Read the original at Defence247.gr