top of page
  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

BELARUS NOTES #1: NUKES

Last weekend Vladimir Putin announced that Russia will move tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) to Belarusian territory. Meanwhile, delivering his annual address to the Belarusian people and parliament today, Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed that strategic nuclear weapons (SNWs) could follow – although this is unlikely for reasons explained below.


Putin’s announcement attracted a fair amount of attention in the western press. I argue, contrary to some, that the announcement is not an indication of Belarus’s lost sovereignty, although I agree that Lukashenka has ceded sovereign powers to Russia in other ways. I also argue that the prospective deployment is probably of greater political significance than military significance.


What was said?


Putin’s announcement concerned TNWs. These are short-range weapons intended for use on the battlefield, and the term refers to nuclear artillery shells as well as missiles, bombs and landmines. SNWs, by contrast, are the higher-yield missiles and bombs used in deterrence and designed for longer-distance strikes.


Putin noted that Iskander missile systems, which can be loaded with nuclear missiles, had already been transferred to Belarus and that the training of crews for their operation would begin immediately. Ten Belarusian military jets, according to Putin, have already been adapted to carry nuclear weapons. Putin further said that construction of a storage facility in Belarus for tactical nuclear weapons will be completed by 1 July.


The last claim, which was the ‘new’ information, met with scepticism in the west. Analysts say there is no evidence of work having begun on construction and point out that the heavily secured, fortified underground bunkers usually used for storing nuclear materials often take years to build. It is also possible that the facility will be a restoration of a Cold War era depot.


Tens of thousands of TNWs were deployed during the Cold War, including on Belarusian soil (then a Soviet republic). When the Soviet Union collapsed, nuclear weapons on the territories of the newly independent states of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine were ‘repatriated’ to Russia. There is contradictory information about when Belarus actually handed over the last nuclear weapons, but the withdrawal of TNWs from Belarus was largely completed in the first half of 1992. Perhaps not fully until 1996.


Belarus acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and declared its non-nuclear status in 1993. It also codified its non-nuclear status in its constitution. In return for giving up the nuclear arsenal on its soil, three states – Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – gave Belarus security assurances under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. (Ukraine and Kazakhstan, also signatories of such memoranda, were given the same assurances.) In the Budapest Memorandum these states affirmed their commitments to Belarusian sovereignty.


Evidence of Belarus’s lost sovereignty?


A widespread initial reaction to last weekend’s news was that it showed Belarus had lost its sovereignty. Responding to the news, a UK-based Belarusian academic concluded: ‘Russia is calling the shots in Minsk.’


I think that is a mistaken conclusion based on a correct premise. I do not agree that the announcement concerning TNWs is evidence of ‘Russia calling the shots’ – in other words, of Belarus’s lost sovereignty. At the same time, if sovereignty is understood, following Carl Schmitt, as resting with ‘he who decides the exception [to the rules],’ then it is almost certainly the case that Lukashenka has ceded that power to Russia and hence I accept the premise. Let me explain…


There is reasonable evidence for this premise in domestic policy matters. The agreements towards common taxation, as part of the Belarus-Russia Union State framework, would be an example. Although the details are not entirely known, it appears likely that in many of the bilateral agreements signed recently between the two states the final say – the decision about the exceptions – is being transferred to Moscow.


The TNW announcement is different, and not a sign of lost sovereignty, because Lukashenka clearly wants the deployment. Although he signed the Budapest Memorandum in the mid-90s, he has called for nuclear weapons from Russia repeatedly. Lukashenka pushed through changes to Belarus’s constitution early last year in which Belarus renounced its non-nuclear status; the change was made through a referendum held days after Russia invaded Ukraine. Many western states did not recognise the referendum as valid.


In the summer of last year, Lukashenka renewed his request to Putin for the deployment of nuclear weapons. The Russian president’s response was ambivalent: Russia agreed to supply Iskander missile systems and modify Sukhoi Su-25 jets but did not actually commit to transferring nuclear weaponry. The point here is that the transfer of any TNWs to Belarus does not look like a reflection of Russian pressure. If anything, one could well argue the pressure came from Lukashenka.


That does not mean it is proof of Belarusian sovereignty, however, as Lukashenka’s cheerleaders might be tempted to claim. Most people probably imagine sovereignty as something ranged along a spectrum, something a state has more or less of, rather than a binary category. I do not think this is right. A state either has sovereignty or it does not. Russian officials like to claim that EU member states have ceded sovereignty to Brussels, but – as Brexit showed – member states do retain the ultimate and exceptional power to overrule the EU. It is far harder to believe that Belarus retains such a power in respect of Russia today.


Political significance


In military terms, the deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus, assuming it happens, is unlikely to change much. The advantages to Russia of having nuclear weapons closer to Ukraine or EU borders are negligible. And Belarus is already well-integrated into Russia’s military apparatus: the two states operate a single air defence system and their soldiers operate jointly in a Regional Group of Forces. Forward positioning nuclear weapons in Belarus provides minimal gain in terms of response times or power projection, especially in relation to mobile systems.


There is political significance in three ways that I can see. In the first place, the timing of Putin’s announcement was interesting. It coincided with Freedom Day in Belarus, which marks the declaration of independence by the Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918 (a short-lived Belarusian independent state) and is a traditional day for oppositional rallies. At the same time, the leader of the democratic movement, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is endorsed by many western states as a leader-in-exile, was noticeably far away. She and members of her ‘Cabinet’ were in the United States. The timing of Putin’s statement could be interpreted as a sign of support for Lukashenka and an effort to underscore the fecklessness of the opposition whose ‘diplomacy’ was overshadowed by events closer to home.


Secondly, complementing my point above, it arguably reaffirms that Russia does not view Belarus as a sovereign country. That is reflected in the fact that – as widely picked up on by the media – Putin made this announcement only a few days after issuing a joint declaration with Chinese premiere Xi Jinping in Moscow. That joint statement stated that nuclear states ‘should not to deploy nuclear weapons outside their national territories and should withdraw all nuclear weapons deployed abroad.’ Putin is treating Belarus as part of its own sovereign realm.


It is worth reflecting on the sequence of events. While China’s Xi was in Moscow, the UK stated that it would give Ukraine ammunition containing depleted uranium. Putin promised a response – and he made that ‘promise’ while Xi was in Moscow. And when Putin made his announcement last Saturday, he introduced it by mentioning the UK’s pledge to supply Ukraine with munitions containing depleted uranium. It was a flimsy pretext: so flimsy that one cannot help but wonder whether the proposed deployment of TNWs might have been discussed between Putin and Xi during his visit.


Lukashenka also reacted to the news that Britain would send ammunition to Ukraine. This looks relevant with hindsight, as well, since Lukashenka said Russia would ‘supply [Belarus] with ammunition with “genuine” uranium.’ The Belarusian foreign ministry spokesperson singled out Britain in its comments on Putin’s announcement.


Finally, and ironically, the real significance may be one Lukashenka does not intend: it is unlikely to be popular with people in Belarus, even among those who support him. Chatham House polling through 2022 repeatedly found about 80% of Belarusians opposed to hosting Russian nuclear weapons. (See page 14 here.)


It is difficult to conduct polling of Belarusians because of the repressive political environment, and Chatham House’s polling suffers from both sampling and measurement errors. But this is not the place to evaluate the methodology. The key point is that the finding is consistent with common sense. Few people like the idea of nuclear weapons being stationed near to where they live. That is why American intercontinental ballistic missiles are stored in silos in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, well away from population centres.


A poisoned chalice for Lukashenka?


That last point is to say the deployment of nuclear weapons raises the risks to Lukashenka domestically. The risk to Lukashenka might not be solely domestic, mind. Any effort by his regime to take over control of any TNWs in Belarus, which would not be out of character, is sure to prompt a Russian reaction against him. Taking control of SNWs would be far harder, and any deployment to Belarus would make even less sense militarily, but this is why Putin is extremely unlikely to entrust these weapons to Belarus.


It is highly unlikely Russia would risk ceding any command and control over nuclear weapons to Belarus. In a way, the deployment of any nuclear weapons, tactical or strategic, will be quite surprising given the recent history of political instability in Belarus and the fact that the willingness of the population to entertain living with Russian nuclear weapons stationed nearby is untested.


Image credit: A Russian intercontinental ballistic missile, by ISC Kosmotras. Used under Creative Commons licence 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1820661

54 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page