Will Russia’s transfer of tactical nuclear weapons to close ally Belarus increase the prospect of the outbreak of a nuclear war in Europe?
A safe answer to this question now may be “highly unlikely.”
Though the exact dates of the transfer of the Russian nukes to Belarus are debatable, what is more pertinent to note is that Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed on June 16 in his speech at Russia’s annual economic forum in Saint Petersburg that few Russian tactical nuclear warheads had already been delivered to Belarus.
“The first nuclear warheads were delivered to the territory of Belarus. But only the first ones, the first part. But we will do this job completely by the end of the summer or by the end of the year,” Putin said.
What is noteworthy here is that this is the first time after the dissolution of the erstwhile Soviet Union (USSR) that Russia has stationed nuclear weapons outside its own territory.
Ironically, it was Belarus, which, like Ukraine and Kazakhstan, had in the 1990s given up all the legacy nuclear weapons that had remained on its territory after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, allowing Moscow to take them back.
Equally important, it is to note that given their smaller range and intensity, tactical nukes on Belarus soil are not going to have any impact on the war in Ukraine. If any country needs to be worried the most about these weapons, it is the neighbor Poland, the most rabid critic of Moscow these days.
As Putin said at Saint Petersburg, the move was a warning to the West about arming and supporting Ukraine. “It is precisely as an element of deterrence so that all those who are thinking about inflicting a strategic defeat on us are not oblivious to this circumstance,” Putin said.
One should mark the words “strategic defeat” of Russia, not the defeat in Ukraine. It implies other simultaneous threats to Russia from elsewhere. The Russian leader has made it clear that Russia does not want to use nuclear weapons at present. “Nuclear weapons have been made to ensure our security in the broadest sense of the word and the existence of the Russian state, but we … have no such need [to use them],” Putin said.
Incidentally, Putin had announced in March that Russia would send tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, one of its few allies in the region. But early this month, in his talks with Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko, he had pointed out that preparations required for the deployment of the weapons would be finished by July 7 or 8.
Of course, it was on June 25 last year, during the summit meeting between Putin and Lukashenko, that the prospect of Russian nukes in Belarus was discussed. In fact, President Lukashenko had been pressing for it since 2021, before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. But this meeting was not marked by any definite Russian decision on the time framework.
What Putin had responded then was that Belarusian Su-25 attack aircraft would be equipped to carry nuclear weapons, and conversion of the planes and training of pilots would be implemented in Russia, and that Iskander missiles—a dual-capable, short-range (500 kilometers or 310 miles) missile system—would be deployed in Belarus in both its ballistic and cruise-missile versions.
If anything, these were clear indications that before any timetable is made for the transfer of the Russian nukes, the required arrangements, such as storage, other infrastructures, delivery platforms, and the training of the crews, must be made in Belarus.
And it is a time-taking process. In that sense, it is understandable when Putin says that real deployments of nuclear weapons in Belarus will wait till the end of this summer or later.
Against this background, experts assume that since Belarus has 10 Su-25 aircraft, perhaps the nukes for the air delivery could be only 10. It is said that since the legacy Soviet Su-25s were originally produced with nuclear capability, conversion for dual capability will be much easier and cheaper.
Nukes that could be delivered by Iskanders in Belarus are also not that difficult a process to adopt, it is said. In fact, Putin had announced last December that Iskanders were already on combat duty and that training of Belarusian crews would begin in early April.
The other important thing to note is that by transferring its nuclear weapons to another friendly country, Russia is violating neither the multilateral NPT nor the now-suspended bilateral START agreement with the US.
Interestingly, what Russia is going to do in Belarus is more or less the same as the US is doing with its nuclear weapons in NATO countries in Europe. In peacetime, weapons would be controlled by Russian personnel but in wartime, they would be used by Belarusian pilots using Belarusian aircraft, but under the control of Moscow.
In other words, nuclear weapons deployed in Belarus would be fully controlled by Russia, while Belarusian armed forces would control the delivery vehicles. The US has a similar arrangement; its allies do not have control of the nuclear weapons deployed in their territory.
The point here is if the US can transfer its nuclear weapons to various parts of the world, though under its control, the same cannot be denied to Russia.
However, it is to be noted that until the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin was steadfastly suggesting that every nuclear weapon country’s nukes should be stationed within its own territory, something the US could not agree to, given its global commitments and alliances in various parts of the world.
The Russian rationale was based on the premise that if the US tactical nuclear weapons were removed from Europe, then Russia’s increasing security threats from NATO could be taken care of by its conventional military power in any eventuality.
In fact, Putin had said in many global forums that strategic nuclear weapons in the hands of the US and Russia were enough deterrents against any war and that tactical nuclear weapons need not be used at all.
But Russia, it seems, has reversed all such notions after the war in Ukraine and the ongoing enlargement of NATO’s forward presence, even up to its doorsteps.
Of course, it could be argued that why Russia needs Belarus when its tactical nuclear weapons are already stationed in its own enclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania along the Baltic Coast, both now NATO members.
But then, it could be due to Russia’s declining conventional military power. Its previous superiority over NATO has been lost, with the alliance’s conventional prowess marking an obvious increase because of new members’ accession.
It is also possible that Russia’s conventional weaponry has been considerably depleted in the ongoing war in Ukraine to be of any significance against the advancing NATO at its doorstep. Recourse to the threats of using nuclear weapons thus has become natural.
As Gregory Lane, a former senior executive in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations with extensive experience in Europe, has argued, the transfer of nukes to Belarus conveys, among others, a strong political message. And that is “to find and exploit wedge issues that can be used to influence European public opinion.”
Given the unavoidable human, environmental, and economic costs that would result from even a limited use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, the escalation of the conflict is “a more real and immediate concern to the residents of Berlin, Budapest, and Bratislava than it is to those in Dallas, Denver, and Detroit.”
Lane seems to have a point. Nukes in Belarus convey a stronger political message than a military one.
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has been commenting on politics, foreign policy, on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
- CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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