Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has announced that Moscow will station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, a move seen as a warning to NATO over its military support for Ukraine and an escalation of tensions with the West. Putin claims that the move will not violate nuclear non-proliferation promises, but it is one of Russia’s most pronounced nuclear signals since it began its invasion of Ukraine 13 months ago. The United States has reacted cautiously to the statement, with a senior administration official saying there were no signs Moscow planned to use its nuclear weapons. Putin likened his plans to the US stationing its weapons in Europe and said that Russia would not be transferring control to Belarus.
This could be the first time since the mid-1990s that Russia has based such weapons outside the country. The transfer of the nuclear weapons to Belarus would expand Russia’s nuclear strike ability along NATO’s eastern border. The move is significant as Russia has until now been proud that, unlike the United States, it did not deploy nuclear weapons outside its borders. It is unclear how many tactical nuclear weapons Russia has given that it is an area still shrouded in Cold War secrecy.
The development comes amid growing tensions over the war in Ukraine after heavy supplies of Western weaponry to Kyiv, and Moscow shifted its rhetoric on its military operation away from the “demilitarisation” of its neighbor to fighting “the collective West” there. Some hawkish Russian politicians and commentators have long speculated about nuclear strikes, saying Russia has the right to defend itself with nuclear weapons if it is pushed beyond its limits.
The transfer of nuclear weapons to Belarus could be a move by Putin to intimidate NATO, given that Belarus has borders with three NATO members: Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Although it is not clear where in Belarus the weapons would be stationed, Russia is said to have already transferred a number of Iskander tactical missile systems that can launch nuclear weapons. Putin claims that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had long requested the deployment, but there has been no immediate reaction from Lukashenko.
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons called Putin’s announcement an extremely dangerous escalation, saying that sharing nuclear weapons made the situation much worse and risks catastrophic humanitarian consequences. While the senior US administration official said that the United States remains committed to the collective defense of the NATO alliance, Putin’s announcement is likely to cause concern in the West.
In summary, Putin’s announcement that Russia will station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus is a significant development that is likely to escalate tensions with the West. It remains to be seen what the long-term implications of this move will be, but it is clear that it will increase the risk of a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. The West will need to remain vigilant and respond appropriately to this threat to international security.