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On March 25, Vladimir Putin announced that he has reached a deal with Belarusian counterpart Aliaksandr Lukashenka to station Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. What is the context of this decision, and what consequences does it bring? SCEEUS experts Aleksandr Golts and Victoria Leukavets explain. 

Aleksandr Golts

Responding to the request of Aliaksandr Lukashenka, Russia will deploy its tactical nuclear weapons on Belarus soil, Vladimir Putin said in a TV interview on March 25. According to the Russian President, the construction of a storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons will be completed by July 1. Russia has provided Belarus with the missile system Iskander, which is capable of carrying nuclear weapons, and has also re-equipped ten Belarusian aircraft to allow them to carry nuclear warheads. Pilot training will begin from April 3. In the same interview, Putin insisted that despite the deployment, Moscow would not actually be transferring control of the arms to Minsk. This will be the first time since the mid-1990s that Moscow will have stationed nuclear arms outside the country.

"We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture," the US Defense Department said in a statement, stressing that there were no signs Moscow planned to use its nuclear weapons. Obviously, the Pentagon assumes that the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus does not violate the strategic balance in Europe.

However, Putin's statement clearly demonstrates his intention to raise the nuclear stakes in an effort to intimidate the West, which is providing substantial aid to Ukraine. He said that the reason for the deployment was the UK's decision to transfer depleted uranium tank ammunition to Ukraine. Depleted uranium is not a nuclear weapon, and isn't related to nuclear weapons, but the Russian leader said their transfer to Ukraine is a reason for the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. Thus, nuclear weapons are in a completely artificial way introduced into the context of the war against Ukraine.

By moving its tactical nuclear weapons to the borders of NATO countries, Russia seeks to demonstrate a threat not only to Ukraine, but also to NATO countries that border Belarus - Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. The old Soviet Su-25 attack aircraft were named as carriers that should be converted to perform nuclear missions. In the USSR, they were never supposed to be used in this capacity because of their low speed and limited flight range. But probably, among the aircraft that Belarus has today, the Su-25 are the only ones that could at least theoretically carry nuclear weapons. The Iskander missile is a modern weapon. The official flight range of Iskander missiles is 500 kilometers. However, NATO countries accused Moscow of testing and deploying missiles considerably exceeding this range. This was the reason for the withdrawal of the United States from the INF treaty in 2019.

Putin insists that the upcoming deployment does not mean violating the non-proliferation regime. He points out: "The United States has been doing this for decades. They have long placed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allies”. At the same time, Moscow is acting contrary to its own promises. The announcement to station weapons in Belarus comes only days after Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow, during which Russia and China issued a joint statement saying "all nuclear powers must not deploy their nuclear weapons beyond their national territories, and they must withdraw all nuclear weapons deployed abroad."

Putin's decision directly contradicts the statement of a high-ranking Russian diplomat made in October 2022 at the UN: "There are currently no plans to physically equip Belarusian systems with nuclear warheads, nor to transfer such warheads to Belarusian territory. The establishment of nuclear warhead storage facilities in Belarus is also not envisaged. They will continue to be concentrated in warehouses within Russian territory."

Raising the stakes in nuclear blackmail is turning into Russia's main strategy against the West.

 

Victoria Leukavets

Putin’s announcement on the 25th of March 2023 about stationing of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus raises several important questions: “How can and should the West respond and what can be the reaction to this development inside Belarus?”.

Authoritarian ruler Aliaksandr Lukashenka paved the way for Russian nuclear weapons to be stationed in Belarus by holding a non-democratic referendum in February 2022 which revoked Belarus’ nuclear free status. This constitutional amendment can be interpreted as a concession which Lukashenka made to the Kremlin for helping him to stay in power in the aftermath of the 2020 post-electoral crisis. The results of the referendum were not recognized by the international community and called into question Belarus’ observance of its obligations under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. The constitutional changes also sparked anti-war protests in several Belarusian cities which were brutally supressed by the Lukashenka regime.

The Kremlin’s decision to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus can be interpreted as an indication of Russia’s weakening position in the war against Ukraine and Moscow’s attempt to increase its bargaining leverage vis-à-vis the West. For the time being the risk of escalation to nuclear war has been assessed as low. The EU has signalled that it might impose further sanctions if Belarus would agree to host Russian nuclear weapons, and it is not likely that Putin’s tactics can lead to negotiations, at least in the short-term perspective.

The stationing of Russian nuclear weapons can potentially have a destabilising effect inside Belarus. According to the recent Chatham House opinion polls, the idea of Russia hosting nuclear weapons on the Belarusian soil is rejected by the absolute majority of respondents in Belarus and the anti-war sentiments in the Belarusian society remain very high. In addition, Putin’s announcement came on the 25th of March which is a Freedom Day in Belarus celebrated by the political opposition and the democratic movement at large, sending a mocking message that the Kremlin will continue to further subjugate Belarusian sovereignty. Overall, deployment of Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory which can turn Belarus into a potential target for preventive or retaliation strikes can contribute to further increasing negative perception and rejection of Putin and Russia in the Belarusian society.

 

 

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