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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


[This was written on 26 June and updated on 4 July.]

When NATO meets in Vilnius for its annual summit next week, Ukraine will rightly dominate the agenda. The lack of consensus within NATO about offering security guarantees to Ukraine, let alone its prospective membership of the alliance, means there is much to thrash out. But Belarus warrants attention at the summit too in light of Russia’s deployment of nuclear weapons to that country.

It is quite possible that Vladimir Putin is waiting until the NATO summit to announce formally the transfer of nuclear weapons to Belarusian soil. He could be announcing the presence of nuclear weapons close to where NATO leaders are gathered (one suggestion has been that they will be stored in the town of Lida, only 100km from Vilnius).

The symbolism and timing of such an announcement could draw some attention away from NATO leaders’ agenda, and overshadow discussions about Ukraine, unless those in attendance are properly prepared.

Crossed messages

There have been mixed messages from Belarus and Russia about the transfer of the tactical nuclear weapons. In recent months, the Belarusian side twice claimed it had already received nuclear weapons only to be contradicted by Russian sources. More recently, on 16 June, Putin agreed with his Belarusian counter-part that the first warheads were already in Belarus, adding that the rest would be transferred by the end of the year.

There is a reluctance to believe this in NATO capitals. Putin had said previously that storage facilities would only be ready on the 7-8 July and the weapons would be moved after that. The NATO Secretary-General responded to Putin’s latest claim by saying that the alliance saw ‘preparations’ for moving nuclear weapons and no more (and bear in mind that the extensive security at such facilities means it is difficult to keep them entirely secret). There has been no evidence of activities consistent with nuclear weapons transfer recorded by Belarusian military watchers either.

All this confusion seems deliberate. It has been suggested that the weapons are being used as part of a disinformation war. I think that is correct and it should draw attention to care with which the Kremlin is timing its announcements and their function as a form of negotiation (‘nuclear blackmail’) with NATO over Ukraine. It appears that Putin is using their deployment as a form of coercive diplomacy and not as a preparation for their abhorrent and destructive use.

Quiet on the eastern flank

The instinct in NATO capitals seems to be to avoid any formal reaction to Russia’s transfer of these weapons to Belarus, to treat as a nuisance and no more. The US State Department sees ‘no reason to adjust [its] strategic nuclear posture.’ As of last month, the US National Security Council spokesperson spoke of ‘reckless and irresponsible rhetoric’ from the Kremlin but his criticism was oddly muted. The US was ‘monitoring the situation.’ Such calm makes strategic sense but brings considerable risks.

From a strategic perspective, the main concern is not to further fuel the militarisation of the region and the avoidance of a nuclear arms race. Analysts note that the presence of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus barely matters in terms of strategic balance or military advantage. Russia has helped to modify ten Belarusian Su-25 aircraft to carry nuclear weapons, but having nuclear-armed aircraft in Belarus would make no appreciable saving in terms of time to potential targets in either Ukraine or NATO.

There have been isolated calls on NATO policymakers to take the transfer of these weapons to Belarus more seriously. George Bogden, writing in the Kyiv Independent, suggests that not reacting undermines US credibility in the central and eastern Europe region. That is a valid observation and seemingly at odds with the prevalent mood within the NATO bloc. Strategy should not be the only lens through which to view the transfer, however, and other political factors need taking into account.

Why NATO should reconsider its position

The political dimension of the weapons transfer demands a more thoughtful response. Domestic factors in both Russia and Belarus need taking into account. Indeed, there are at least three reasons why NATO should reconsider its position in the run up to the Vilnius summit and be prepared to respond should the weapons’ deployment in Belarus be confirmed.

The first concerns the security of the installations. Russia insists that it will remain in control of all nuclear weapons stored in Belarus. The Prigozhin mutiny in late June, though, revealed instability in the Russian state and should prompt NATO to reassess the credibility of Russia’s assurances about its control over its nuclear arsenal.

There were major concerns when the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s about the insecure storage of nuclear materials in the former USSR.

Through the 1991 Nunn-Lugar Act, the US helped to secure Russia’s nuclear arsenal and also bring nuclear weapons from three newly-independent states (Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine) back to Russia. The thinking was that one nuclear-armed state was better than several nuclear-armed states; a point strangely absent from the debate today.

More concerningly, there were several attempted thefts which often failed for banal reasons. In one case, recounted in a 1997 book by Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, an otherwise-feasible plot might have failed because one of the conspirators got drunk with his pet rat and missed a rendezvous. In fact, the remaining conspirators still managed to steal a batch of uranium and went to ground as they hadn’t a buyer lined up. It was only when the alcoholic no-show indulged in some inebriated boasting at a party, months later, that officials got wind of the missing nuclear materials. If Russia is protecting the storage sites in Belarus, instability in Russia could call their security into question as it did so often in the early 1990s.

The Belarus factor

The second reason is instability in Belarus itself. Even before the Prigozhin mutiny in Russia, it seemed madness for Moscow to move nuclear weapons to a neighbouring state that was itself rocked by massive street protests in 2020. Following a rigged presidential election that year, described at length in my book on Belarus, hundreds of thousands took to the streets. There are today 1,500 political prisoners in Belarus (worryingly we have no information on the whereabouts or health of several of the most prominent) and hundreds of thousands of others left the country.

The revolution stalled but the political crisis in Belarus is far from over. Today, a militant opposition to Lukashenka is fighting on the side of Ukraine in the war against Russia and makes no secret of its intentions to lead an armed uprising against Lukashenka in due course. They claim to have hundreds of people in place, including in the armed forces, ready to overthrow Lukashenka. In a potential armed civil conflict in Belarus, will Russia really have control over the weapons? Will the Belarusian military?

The simmering political crisis in Belarus combines with questions about Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s health. He disappeared for six days earlier this year and, while his supporters insist that he simply had the flu, he is nearing 70 years old and no one can doubt that natural causes could end the corpulent dictator’s presidency soon. Even his supporters have started to prepare for that eventuality and it could lead to a renewal of political instability in Belarus, with all the ramifications that brings for nuclear security.

The final reason, perhaps the most significant worry, is Lukashenka’s personality and its effects on foreign policy. Richard Nixon talked of the ‘madman theory’: the idea that a leader might cultivate irrationality: adversaries would be wary of contradicting the foreign policy an irrational leader, fearing it would provoke a crisis. Unfortunately for NATO leaders, they have to deal with what they perceive as irrationality in the foreign policy of others, too.

Lukashenka is not a madman, but he is certainly a volatile character. He has not been shy to contradict Russia’s claims it will retain control of the weapons. In the middle of last month, he bragged that he would 'not hesitate' to use nuclear weapons in response to any aggression against Belarus. He is known to lash out on a whim and, while his claim flatly contradicts Russia’s insistence it will retain control over the weapons, who is to say Lukashenka is lying?

If this were strategic weapons – large missiles in silos – which are launched through a rigorous system (the Russians have their own version of a ‘nuclear briefcase’), we might be more confident. But tactical nuclear weapons include smaller nuclear warheads and ammunition and it would be far easier to seize control over the nuclear materials at least. Russia has trained Belarusian crews to use the relevant missile systems. Can we really be so sure Belarus cannot take control and acquire an independent nuclear capability?

NATO’s response

NATO might therefore consider a more robust response to the transfer of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus if it is formally confirmed (and it is likely to be soon). One possibility, which would appeal to hawks, would be to intimate to Putin that it will consider a ’mirror’ response by placing tactical nuclear weapons in Poland which would likely be glad of hosting them. Having placed weapons in Belarus, Putin will have undermined his argument against such a tit-for-tat arms race.

There is a small possibility that Putin might reconsider in the face of such pledges by NATO and withdraw the weapons; one lesson from the Prigozhin mutiny was that Putin does on occasion retreat. But the chances of Putin backing down are slim. NATO should be firm that it sees this as a breach of Russia’s previous commitments to nuclear non-proliferation and seek redress through institutional mechanisms. Belarus, as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, should face punishment as well.

Russia’s goal appears to be nuclear blackmail in respect of Ukraine, as mentioned above. NATO should therefore focus its response in that theatre. The issue of Ukraine’s membership path to NATO is unlikely to be resolved imminently, so NATO leaders should make other decisions in Vilnius, for example by pledging more and new weapons to Ukraine specifically tied to the nuclear deployment in Belarus. That is more likely to have an effect on Putin’s calculus and may unsettle Lukashenka as well.

We might end on a paradoxical hope. Thomas Schelling, a great writer on strategic matters, communicated towards the end of his life his hope that, should ‘rogue nations’ acquire nuclear weapons, they would recognise that their value came from not using them. That the advantage of such weapons was diplomatic and not destructive. In other words, we might hope that Lukashenka is a believer in the madman theory, while also hoping that the theory does not work.

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