Russia deploys tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus

Moscow Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in the former Soviet republic of Belarus. The leaders in Moscow and Minsk had agreed on this, Putin told state television on Saturday evening.

Russia is not violating the international nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The Kremlin chief pointed out that the United States also has nuclear weapons stationed with allies in Europe. “We’re just doing what they’ve been doing for decades.” Belarus is a neighbor of both Russia and Ukraine.

The United States also has nuclear weapons stationed in Germany. In the past, Putin had called for their withdrawal because Moscow saw itself as a threat. Now the head of the Kremlin emphasized that Russia – like the USA – would not let any other country have its nuclear weapons. Rather, they would be kept there, and there would be training in weapons.

Putin announced that training in Belarus will begin on April 3. The shafts for the Iskander missiles, which can be equipped with nuclear warheads, should be ready by July 1st. There was initially no information from Minsk.

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter that Russia’s deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus directly violates the Belarusian constitution and grossly contradicts the will of the people. She referred to Belarus’ status as a non-nuclear state, as expressed in the 1990 Declaration of State Sovereignty.

Tsikhanouskaya also called on the international community to ask Russia to stop the deployment and continued to call for “strict sanctions” against the regimes of Putin and Lukashenko. The former Soviet republics of Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, which once held nuclear weapons, handed them over to Russia between 1993 and 1996. In 1994, Belarus signed the Budapest Memorandum and joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which had already been signed in 1986 by the Soviet Union, Great Britain and the USA.

At the end of August last year, Moscow blocked a joint final declaration at a UN conference to review the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Binding deadlines for dismantling nuclear weapons could not be set as planned. At the end of February, Russia also suspended its participation in the “New Start” treaty, which limits the strategic nuclear arsenals of Moscow and the United States.

Putin’s announcement met with clear criticism from the federal government. In the Foreign Office in Berlin on Saturday evening there was talk of a “further attempt at nuclear intimidation”. The Ukrainian government reacted demonstratively unimpressed to the announcement from Moscow.

According to analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Putin’s announcement is “irrelevant to the still extremely low risk of escalation to nuclear war.” In a recent analysis, the Institute’s experts write that Putin is trying to exploit the West’s fears of an escalation. “Russia has a long history of deploying nuclear-capable weapons capable of hitting any target that tactical nuclear weapons stationed in Belarus can hit.”

>> Read here: “They started the war” – Putin scolds the USA and announces a new arms race

Putin is more likely to be seen as a “risk-averse actor” who threatens to use nuclear weapons to break the West’s resolve. Putin now hopes to curtail Ukraine’s morale and Western support in order to reduce the effectiveness of any imminent Ukrainian counter-offensive.

According to information from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Sipri, in January 2022 Russia had a stock of around 4,477 nuclear warheads, around 20 fewer than in 2021. Around 2,500 of these were strategic warheads and almost 1,900 were tactical nuclear warheads.

In January 2022, according to Sipri information, Russia had the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, followed by the United States with 3,708 nuclear weapons. In third place is China with an estimated number of 350.

Strategic nuclear weapons are designed for long-range use, they can travel over 5500 kilometers. Tactical nuclear weapons, on the other hand, have shorter ranges and lower yields, and are intended for direct combat use. At the same time, the Sipri researchers point out that these are only estimates.

Belarus and Russia closest allies

Belarus and its ruler Alexander Lukashenko are among Moscow’s closest allies. Lukashenko has repeatedly asked for the stationing of tactical nuclear missiles, Putin said. The long-term ruler in Minsk – often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator” – had also regretted that Belarus divested itself of its nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 30 years ago. Ukraine had also given up its nuclear weapons at the time.

Alexander Lukashenko (left) and Vladimir Putin

Russia and Belarus are closest allies.

(Photo: IMAGO/SNA)

Russia has already helped Belarus convert aircraft, ten of which are now equipped to also launch tactical nuclear weapons, Putin said. Tactical nuclear weapons have a shorter range than ICBMs, but still several hundred kilometers. The explosive effect is between one and 50 kilotons of TNT. However, Russia is not stationing any strategic nuclear weapons in Belarus that could reach the United States, for example.

With the stationing, Russia is reacting to the increasing tensions with NATO in the wake of Putin’s war against Ukraine. Russia invaded Ukraine more than a year ago. Specifically, Moscow was recently outraged about the possible delivery of uranium ammunition from Great Britain to Ukraine. The projectiles with depleted uranium have a special impact, for example to destroy tanks.

>> Read here: “Escalate to win” – experts fear a new nuclear arms race

Putin warned on state television against the use of such ammunition. Uranium ammunition is “among the most harmful and dangerous for humans” because the uranium nucleus causes radioactive dust and contaminates the soil. “Without exaggeration, we have hundreds of thousands of such missiles,” he said. So far, however, they have not been used.

Intimidation of NATO, say experts

Scientists rated Putin’s announcement as an important signal. “This is part of Putin’s attempt to intimidate NATO,” said expert Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, which specializes in armaments and security issues. However, Russia does not derive any military benefit from this step, since it already maintains a comprehensive nuclear arsenal on its own territory.

Nikolai Sokol from the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation described Putin’s decision as an important step. Russia stationing nuclear weapons outside its territory is a big change.

>> Read here: Fear of Russian nuclear attack – “After that, Putin would be the pariah of the world community”

After Putin’s announcement, the US Presidential Office said there was no reason to change US nuclear weapons policy, nor were there any signs that Russia was preparing to use a nuclear weapon. The United States monitored the situation and remained committed to NATO’s collective defense. The US Department of Defense made a similar statement. A senior government official said Russia and Belarus had been discussing such an agreement since last year.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), an alliance of non-governmental organizations, spoke of an extremely dangerous escalation. In connection with the war in Ukraine, the risk of a misjudgment is very high. There is a risk of catastrophic humanitarian consequences, said the alliance, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

London accuses Putin of misinformation

The British Army has been using depleted uranium in armor-piercing shells for decades. The Ministry of Defense in London accused Putin of misinformation after speaking of a “nuclear component”. Putin knows that this has nothing to do with nuclear weapons or capabilities.

As part of NATO’s nuclear deterrent, the United States has stationed nuclear bombs in several European countries. There is no official information on this, but nuclear weapons are said to continue to be stored in the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Germany – as well as in the Asian part of Turkey. Other NATO countries, Great Britain and France, have their own nuclear weapons.

Up to 20 US nuclear bombs are said to be stationed at the Bundeswehr air base in Büchel in the Rhineland-Palatinate Eifel, which are to be used in an emergency with the Bundeswehr’s Tornado fighter jets. The Tornados stationed in Büchel are to be replaced by modern F35 fighter jets from US production from 2027.

>> Read here: Why the city of Avdiivka could become the second Bakhmut

In the interview, Putin also said that given Western tank supplies to Ukraine, Russia will increase its own tank production. “The total number of tanks in the Russian army will exceed Ukraine’s by a factor of three, even more than three times.” While Ukraine will receive 420 to 440 tanks from the West, Russia will build 1,600 new tanks or modernize existing tanks.

Putin also said Russia could produce three times the amount of ammunition that western Ukraine wants to supply. The national armaments industry is developing at a rapid pace. However, he did not want to overly militarize his own economy, the Kremlin chief claimed. In fact, a government commission has already been set up in Moscow to ensure that the economy meets the needs of the military. While the Russian economy is suffering severely from Western sanctions, the defense industry is in full swing.

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