Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has announced that his country will station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, a move that has alarmed Ukraine and NATO members. Putin said that the decision was not a violation of any nuclear non-proliferation agreements and that it was a response to the US deploying its own nuclear weapons on the territory of its European allies. He also said that Russia would not transfer control of the weapons to Belarus, but would train its forces to operate them.
Tactical nuclear weapons are low-yield warheads that can be delivered by short-range missiles, artillery shells, bombs or torpedoes. They are designed to be used on the battlefield against military targets, rather than against cities or infrastructure. They are also more difficult to monitor and verify than strategic nuclear weapons, which are subject to various treaties and inspections.
Russia has an estimated 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, while the US has about 500. The US has deployed some of its weapons in six NATO countries: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey and the UK. Russia has not deployed any of its weapons outside its borders since 1996, when it withdrew them from former Soviet republics.
The announcement to station weapons in Belarus comes amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West over the invasion of Ukraine, which began in 2022. Belarus, a close ally of Russia and a dictatorship led by Alexander Lukashenko, has supported Moscow’s aggression and allowed Russian troops and equipment to use its territory as a staging ground for attacks on Ukraine. Belarus also shares a long border with Ukraine and with NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
The deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus could have several implications for regional and global security. First, it could increase the risk of nuclear escalation or miscalculation in a conflict between Russia and NATO. If Russia were to use or threaten to use tactical nuclear weapons against NATO forces or allies, it could trigger a nuclear response from the US or other NATO members. Alternatively, if NATO were to perceive that Russia was preparing to use or transfer its weapons in Belarus, it could launch a pre-emptive strike to destroy them.
Second, it could undermine the existing nuclear arms control regime and provoke a new arms race. The deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus would violate the spirit if not the letter of several agreements that aim to limit and reduce nuclear arsenals and prevent their proliferation. For example, the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) were unilateral pledges by the US and Russia to withdraw most of their tactical nuclear weapons from forward-deployed locations and reduce their stockpiles. The 2010 New START treaty limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems that each side can possess. The 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) bans all nuclear explosions for any purpose.
Third, it could destabilize the internal situation in Belarus and increase the pressure on Lukashenko’s regime. The deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus would make it a target for potential adversaries and terrorists who might seek to sabotage or steal them. It would also alienate many Belarusians who oppose Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule and his alignment with Russia. The opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who lives in exile after claiming victory in a disputed election in 2020, said that Russia’s deployment of tactical nuclear weapons “grossly contradicts the will of the Belarusian people”.
In conclusion, Russia’s plan to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus is a dangerous and provocative move that could have serious consequences for regional and global security. It is likely to increase the tension and mistrust between Russia and the West, undermine the existing nuclear arms control regime and provoke a new arms race, and destabilize the internal situation in Belarus and increase the pressure on Lukashenko’s regime.