Escalating dependence: Russia’s nuclear plans for Belarus
Putin may be bluffing about the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. But if he follows through, the chance of a democratic transition for Belarus could all but vanish
Vladimir Putin has announced plans to deploy Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. He claims this will happen by summer this year, once a new nuclear storage facility has been constructed or those of the Soviet era have been repurposed. The announcement prompted an angry international reaction. But such a move from Moscow is hardly unexpected. Indeed, the legal basis for this decision has been in preparation since 2021, when Aliaksandr Lukashenka consulted with Russia on the draft of a new Belarusian constitution. If Putin follows through on his announcement – and that is a big ‘if’ – it will likely shatter any possibility of a democratic transition in Belarus, even in the case of regime change in Moscow.
Lukashenka has long expressed his disappointment with the withdrawal of Soviet nuclear weapons from Belarus in 1996, when the country officially became a non-nuclear state. He likely calculates that nuclear-armed status would shield his regime from the criticism of Western countries for human rights violations – and protect Belarus from sanctions. In February 2022, Lukashenka held a decorative referendum on his amended constitution that included the removal of a commitment to neutrality and nuclear-free status.
Since then, Lukashenka has repeatedly implored the Russian leadership to return nuclear weapons to Belarus. He described the deployment of nuclear weapons by the United States or France near the borders of Belarus as a potential trigger for such a decision. This situation has not materialised. But that has not prevented cooperation between the Belarusian and Russian regimes. They started with the modification of Belarusian aircraft to be able to carry nuclear warheads. Later, Russia gifted Belarus some Iskander ballistic missile systems capable of launching these weapons. Now it has come to – at least – rhetoric on the permanent deployment of Russian nuclear arms.
Russian diplomacy has long criticised the US for storing American nuclear weapons in third countries, arguing that it is a violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Yet now Putin justifies moving weapons to Belarus with reference to the American practice. This shift looks even more hypocritical in wake of the joint statement from Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, signed just four days before Putin’s nuclear announcement.
In this document, Russia and China call on “all nuclear powers not to deploy nuclear weapons outside their national territories and to withdraw all nuclear weapons stationed abroad”. Now, despite Russia’s great strides in eroding Belarus’s independence over the past year, the latter remains a sovereign state. It is unlikely that Putin would miss the irony of ignoring the contradictions of his proposed actions given the joint statement – even though his control over Lukashenka ensures that he can do just that. Moreover, the announcement on deploying weapons to Belarus coincided with the country’s unofficial independence day on March 25. This holiday is banned in Belarus but celebrated by Lukashenka’s exiled opponents around the world. Again, Putin is sending a clear message about who is really in charge.
The decision to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus also indicates that Moscow has exhausted its tools for blackmailing the West. First, the latter was threatened with weaponisation of energy resources. But winter came and went, and Europe did not freeze. In fact, European countries have made great strides in extricating themselves from dependence on Russian oil and gas over the past year. Then, Putin’s mobilisation in Russia failed to turn the tide of the war, instead exposing problems with the Russian army’s military and technical equipment and exacerbating a lack of ammunition. Russian forces have failed not only to capture the whole of Ukraine – but even following seven months of a ‘meat grinder’ assaults on Bakhmut, the small town remains largely in Ukrainian hands. Ukraine, meanwhile, is receiving more and more weapons as it prepares its counteroffensive. Perhaps the Kremlin thinks nuclear blackmail is its only remaining card.
This blackmail applies not only to Western governments, but also to their societies. It is one thing to support the supply of arms to Ukraine, banking on this stopping the war before it gets too close to home; it is quite another to hear that such assistance raises the threat of nuclear war. Ultimately, Putin likely hopes a backdrop of potential nuclear annihilation will make territorial concessions from Ukraine or China’s bumbling peace plan look far less unpalatable in the West.
Of course, this may turn out to be just another of Putin’s informational special operations – in which the purpose is not to actually carry out the announced plan but to force his opponents to believe that he will. In 2015, for example, Putin publicly signed a document on the creation of a Russian military base in Belarus. A few days later, the Belarusian authorities disowned the plans and the Russian base in Belarus never appeared. They are in no position to argue this time. But, even with Lukashenka’s extreme dependence, Putin’s timeline for the construction of a nuclear weapons storage facility by summer looks unrealistic. In Kaliningrad, this took about two years and was intercepted by Western intelligence and open-source researchers. There is no sign of anything similar in Belarus, and the Soviet-era storage facilities are currently unusable: partially destroyed, abandoned, and with some even being used for mushroom cultivation.
However, if Putin is serious and Russian nuclear weapons find their way to Belarus, this will become an existential challenge for the latter. Putin’s stranglehold over Belarus and Belarusians will tighten. Even more Russian soldiers and military equipment will move in to guard and maintain the weapons. Belarus will become a priority target for strikes in the event of a regional or global conflict. And control over the nuclear facility will be entirely in the hands of a foreign government. Neither Lukashenka nor Belarusian society – 80 per cent of which opposes the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons – will have any say whatsoever on whether the weapons are used. Even in the most optimistic scenario, in which Russia suffers a crushing defeat in Ukraine that eventually leads to regime change, Putin’s nuclear base will ensure Belarus remains captive in Russia’s geopolitical prison. This should concern Europeans and anyone committed to a democratic future for Belarus – and underlines the need to support the country’s exiled opposition.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.