Russia to station nuclear weapons in Belarus: How dangerous is this for Ukraine and the West


The Russia-Ukraine war is heating up — one could say it’s almost going nuclear. On Saturday, Russian president and strong man Vladimir Putin announced that some of his country’s nuclear arsenal would be stationed in Belarus.

While making the announcement, Putin said that the deployment was in response to a longstanding request from Belarus’ leader and Putin ally, Alexander Lukashenko and emphasised that the move did not violate nuclear nonproliferation agreements, adding that the United States has long stationed nuclear weapons in the territory of its European allies.

The move has prompted sharp reactions from Ukraine and NATO, both expressing concern about the nuclear rhetoric being used in the ongoing war.

But what exactly has Putin said about the nuclear weapons? Which weapons will be deployed in Belarus? Is this move significant in the ongoing war? What does it mean for the world?

We take a closer look at the situation and present you with all the answers.

What did Putin say?

Amid rising tensions with the West — the ICC warrant against Putin hasn’t helped — the Russian leader on Saturday said that the country would be stationing some of its tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.

“There is nothing unusual here: first of all, the US has been doing this for decades,” Putin said. “They placed their tactical nuclear weapons in six different allied NATO countries in Europe… We have agreed to do the same thing, without, I stress, violating our international non-proliferation obligations,” he added.

“They have tactical nuclear weapons in certain countries (the US has some weapons stationed in Europe and Turkey, and Britain), prepare the delivery systems, and train the crews. We’re planning to do the same thing.”

The Russian leader clarified that Moscow would not be transferring control of its arms to Minsk. He also stated that the construction of a storage facility for the weapons in Belarus would be completed by 1 July. However, training crews for operating the weapons would start next week itself.

Putin did not specify when the weapons themselves would be sent nor did he mention which of the weapons would be sent. Interestingly, Putin has already transferred a small number of Iskander tactical missile systems — that can be used to launch nuclear weapons — to Belarus.

And what prompted the Russian president to make this move? Putin said the decision was in response to UK’s decision to supply Ukraine with anti-tank shells containing depleted uranium. He said that such weaponry was a nuclear escalation of the conflict. This claim was dmissed by UK and US, saying the rounds only have conventional uses.

What weapons will he station in Belarus?

Vladimir Putin has not stated what weapons would be stationed in Belarus other than they being tactical nuclear weapons.

But what exactly are tactical nuclear weapons? The answer to this is tricky as experts have long debated the issue. The closest definition of these weapons are that they are specifically used for tactical gains on the battlefield, rather than, say, destroying the biggest cities of the United States or Russia.

It is not known how many of these kind of weapons does Russia own. According to last estimates by the US, Moscow is in possession of 2,000 such working tactical warheads, 10 times more than Washington.

Also read: A look at Russia’s nuclear arsenal

Moreover, Russia’s nuclear arsenal is significantly large. According to the Federation of American Scientists, Russia has 5,977 nuclear warheads as of 2022. In comparison, the US has 5,428 weapons of a nuclear nature, China has 350 such warheads, France has 290 and UK has 225 warheads. Pakistan and India have 165 and 160 warheads respectively followed by Israel having 90 warheads. North Korea with 20 warheads is currently increasing its stockpile.

The move to transfer nuclear weapons to Belarus has been a longstanding request from Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko has blown hot and cold on the issue of nuclear arms. File image/Reuters

How did Ukraine and West react?

Ukraine immediately called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council after Putin’s announcement, saying Minsk was being used “as a nuclear hostage”.

Oleksiy Danilov, a top security adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, said Putin’s plan would destabilise Belarus. “The Kremlin took Belarus as a nuclear hostage,” he said. He further asked the international community to take “decisive measures” to prevent Russia’s use of nuclear weapons.

NATO also decried Putin’s move, saying that the Russian president’s move on nuclear sharing was false. “NATO allies act with full respect of their international commitments,” NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said, adding, “Russia must return to compliance and act in good faith.”

The European Union’s foreign policy chief also condemned Putin’s announcement. “Belarus hosting Russian nuclear weapons would mean an irresponsible escalation & threat to European security. Belarus can still stop it, it is their choice,” Josep Borrell, who serves as the EU’s top diplomat, said in a tweet. “The EU stands ready to respond with further sanctions.”

Also read: Will we see more nuclear arms in the future? What Vladimir Putin’s suspension of New START means for the world

The United States was cautious in its response with National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson saying that they did not see any signs of Russia moving towards using a nuclear weapon. “We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture nor any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon.”

Is this significant in the war?

The deployment of Russia’s nuclear weapons in Belarus is the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union that Moscow will have based nuclear arms outside the country.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, nuclear weapons were deployed in the four newly-independent states of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. In May 1992, the four states agreed all the weapons should be based in Russia and the transfer of warheads from Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan was completed in 1996.

But what message does this give out as the war wages on?

Using Belarus is worrying for its neighbouring countries — Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. As one expert stated it’s an attempt by Putin to intimidate NATO.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) called Putin’s announcement an extremely dangerous escalation. “In the context of the war in Ukraine, the likelihood of miscalculation or misinterpretation is extremely high. Sharing nuclear weapons makes the situation much worse and risks catastrophic humanitarian consequences,” it said on Twitter.

Some analysts believe that the move is more about messaging than anything else. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group, dismissed Putin’s announcement as an “information operation” with little risk of escalation.

“Putin is attempting to exploit Western fears of nuclear escalation,” it said, according to a report in the New York Times.

Pavel Podvig, a scholar on Russian nuclear forces, in fact, said he still considered it unlikely that Russia would actually move nuclear warheads into Belarus, despite Putin’s latest comments. He said that he doubted a facility in Belarus could be ready by July and even if it did, the nuclear threat level would not change, substantially.

“It’s not a positive development, of course, but as long as the weapons are in storage the threat is not immediate,” Podvig told the New York Times. “Yes, theoretically, Russia can reach more targets from Belarus, but the change is marginal.”

Retired Air Vice-Marshal Sean Bell told Sky News that the move was definitely more about messaging. “This is a bit of sabre rattling,” he said. He, however, noted that Russia’s increased use of Belarus is a worry for the nation.

However, Nikolai Sokol, a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation told CNBC that it was a significant move for Russia. “Russia had always been very proud that it had no nuclear weapons outside its territory. So, now, yes, they are changing that and it’s a big change.”

With inputs from agencies

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Russia to station nuclear weapons in Belarus: How dangerous is this for Ukraine and the West
Russia to station nuclear weapons in Belarus: How dangerous is this for Ukraine and the West
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