BERLIN – When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, nuclear weapons, control of which was transferred to the new Russian Federation, were stationed in three countries suddenly independent of Moscow. By the mid-1990s Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus had transferred the nuclear weapons back to Russia.
On 25 March this year Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, announced that he intended to station “tactical” nuclear weapons in Belarus, which would thus be the first time in over 25 years that Russian nuclear weapons have been stationed outside of the country. Belarus, to Russia’s west, borders the Nato member states Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.
Construction of a facility to store Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus is to be completed by 1 July, according to Putin. Iskander missiles, which are capable of delivering tactical nuclear weapons, have already been sent to the landlocked country, claims Moscow. Russia additionally says it is working to upgrade Belarusian aircraft to carry tactical nuclear weapons, which are less strictly regulated by international arms control treaties than so-called strategic warheads, which typically have a much greater destructive capacity.
The decision was enabled by a constitutional referendum held in Belarus in February 2022, which among other changes legally allowed Russia to host nuclear weapons in the country. According to official results, voters approved the changes.
The political opposition to Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president, is strongly against the move, calling it a threat to international security and Belarusian sovereignty. “Russian nuclear weapons are unacceptable in Belarus,” Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled opposition leader who is recognised by several Western countries as the country’s legitimate president, told me in an emailed statement. She added that Russia represents a “threat to Belarusian sovereignty, independence and national security”.
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Putin framed Russia’s move as a response to the UK’s decision to supply Ukraine with armour-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium, which he erroneously linked to nuclear weapons. The Belarusian government, which is largely subservient to Russia, has argued that nuclear weapons will help to counteract alleged Western “political, economic and information pressure” against the country.
Russia says that as it will retain control over the nuclear weapons and that they do not violate arms control treaties. Moscow claims that its move is an analogue of nuclear-sharing agreements between the US and five European Nato allies. Under the Cold War-era arrangement, around 100 American B61 bombs – which remain under US control – are deployed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.
Although Russia’s move is intended to put pressure on the West by raising the spectre of nuclear attack in a manner that has become regular over the course of the war in Ukraine, in practical terms it changes little, according to Mark Galeotti, author of Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine and an expert on the Russian military. Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea wedged between Lithuania and Poland, is already a base for Russian nuclear weapons; nuclear-armed warplanes leaving the exclave could reach several Nato countries about as quickly as they could from Belarus. “Putin doesn’t want to lose the propaganda capacity to every now and then flash what looks like a nuclear card for certain constituencies in the West, which then get very scared and start agitating for some kind of an ugly peace [in Ukraine] as better than thermonuclear Armageddon,” Galeotti said.
Russia’s ability to threaten the use of nuclear weapons has been limited by its ally, China, which has publicly insisted that threatening the use of the nuclear weapons is unacceptable. On a state visit to Russia in March Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, issued a joint statement with Putin calling on “all nuclear powers … [to] withdraw all nuclear weapons deployed abroad”. Russia’s announcement just days later that it plans to deploy nuclear weapons to Belarus would appear to be in direct contravention of the communiqué.
If built, the nuclear weapons storage facility would presumably be guarded by Russia’s 12th Chief Directorate, the Ministry of Defence’s department responsible for the maintenance and safekeeping of the nuclear arsenal. This presence might be minimal as long as no warheads are actually stationed in the facility. But with just a single nuclear weapon, the Russian presence would probably be significantly increased, further undermining Belarus’s independence.
“This is not a step change, in that there are already bases in Belarus which are essentially being used by the Russians and therefore have Russian personnel based at them,” said Galeotti. “It’s just one more element of the creeping integration of Russia and Belarus.”
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