This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
In a television interview released on March 26, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow could deploy tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of ally Belarus by July.
He said all the necessary infrastructure for such a deployment would be in place by July 1. Ten Belarusian Air Force planes have been retrofitted to deliver the weapons and nuclear-capable, short-range Iskander missile systems are already based in the country, which borders Ukraine, Russia, and NATO members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.
Next month, Putin said, Russia would begin training Belarusian military personnel on the use of tactical nuclear weapons. In addition, he said a storage facility for the weapons would be completed by July 1.
Putin asserted that the move mirrors the long-standing U.S. practice of basing tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of NATO allies, including Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Turkey.
RFE/RL asked several military and political analysts about the decision, what motivated it, and what it might mean for Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and NATO.
‘Trying To Drive A Wedge’
Pavel Luzin, a foreign- and defense-policy expert who is a visiting scholar at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in the United States, told Yury Drakakhrust of RFE/RL’s Belarus Service:
“The deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus is blackmail targeting not only NATO, but Ukraine. They want the Europeans to be afraid so they will reduce aid to Ukraine. And it is a warning to Ukraine — if you try to destroy our planes in Belarus, remember that we have a nuclear option.
“Russia is now trying to imitate the American policy of nuclear sharing to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States.
“[Belarusian leader Alyaksandr] Lukashenka wants Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus…because he thinks that if Russia deploys them, Moscow will depend on him just has he now depends on Moscow…. He does not understand that if a nuclear-weapons storage facility is opened in Belarus, troops will also be located there. Since late 2021, Russian troops have been in Belarus on a temporary basis. When a storage facility appears, they will be there permanently. The Americans delegate responsibilities to their allies in Europe, but Russian political and military culture does not provide for such a degree of trust in one’s allies. The consequence of a nuclear-weapons storage facility could be the creation of several permanent Russian military bases.”
Pavel Podvig, a longtime expert on Russia’s nuclear arsenal and a senior researcher with the UN’s Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, told Vital Tsygankou of RFE/RL’s Belarus Service:
“As far as completing the storage facility by July 1, I have great doubts about this. No one has seen this construction yet. A facility for the storage of nuclear weapons is a rather serious engineering task. You have to build a fortified bunker, build a security perimeter, set up guards. The installation of surveillance and alarm systems alone takes months, up to six months. All this would be visible, but no one has seen it. If construction were already started, it would have been noticed.
“In my opinion, the whole idea is primarily political — to demonstrate the strengthening political union between Belarus and Russia. This is purely a political step. There is no military expediency in this action. By the way, the same practice exists in NATO. It is primarily a political action, designed to demonstrate unity.
“Although this is a purely political action, the West is in a difficult position. They cannot say it is illegal because they themselves have deployed their nuclear weapons in other countries for many years.
“I strongly doubt that nuclear weapons will really be deployed in Belarus. The value of this ‘event’ is exclusively political, not military. And for political purposes, it isn’t even necessary to build the storage facility. The very possibility of such a deployment is enough to create a political effect.”
‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’
Arkady Moshes, a historian and program director with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs who specializes in the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, told Drakakhrust:
“It makes no sense to push nuclear weapons closer to NATO’s borders because Russia has the Kaliningrad region and these weapons can be deployed there without bringing another nation into play. I do not see any particular military significance in this decision. But the fact that it was made shows the Kremlin is nervous, if not panicking. The Kremlin is beginning to realize that its previous threats to use nuclear weapons are starting to sound a bit like the boy who cried wolf…. This is an attempt to destabilize the situation, to frighten those people in the West who have a tendency to be frightened.”
‘Russia Can Still Raise The Stakes’
Belarusian political analyst Artsyom Shraybman told RFE/RL’s Russian Service:
“Lukashenka knows very well how to capitalize on the various services he performs for Russia. He is demonstrating his loyalty and turning it into cash. I don’t see any other benefits in this for Lukashenka. It is an unpopular step in the eyes of the Belarusian public. In the summer of 2022, according to polls, 80 percent of Belarusians opposed the basing of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus. So in terms of domestic politics, this is a problem for Lukashenka. Up until now, he has been able to position himself for many Belarusians as the guarantor of peace and security. Now that will be harder.
“This decision looks like a continuation of Putin’s blackmail, trying to force Western and NATO countries to make compromises on Ukraine. They are trying to demonstrate that Russia can still raise the stakes in ways that would be dangerous for the West. It is an ultimatum to the West, and Belarus is barely even a player.
“As far as the integration process [between Russia and Belarus] is concerned, this will impact military cooperation, since at least two new Russian divisions will appear in Belarus to guard the new facilities. And there could be more economic integration in the wake of this military cooperation, since Belarus will most likely be given additional discounts, benefits, and loans.”
Russian political analyst Ivan Preobrazhensky told Aleksei Aleksandrov of Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA:
“I think this is a reaction to the recent talks with China and, at the same time, to the arrest warrant for Putin by the International Criminal Court and the preparations for intensified fighting in Ukraine this spring — all rolled together. But the ultimate goal is to try to minimize the supply of weapons to Ukraine by NATO countries. It is the continuation of the previous strategy of nuclear intimidation.
“As for the basing of nuclear weapons in Belarus, it is impossible to say for certain that they aren’t already there, especially since Iskander systems were delivered to Belarus even before the massive invasion of Ukraine [in February 2022]…. Probably they were deployed already with the Iskanders and we are getting a post-factum announcement. Remember the historical precedent of the Cuban Missile Crisis — announcement comes after deployment is under way.”