Nuclear weapons are to be stationed in Belarus for the first time in 30 years. What does this step mean for the country and the NPT?
Nuclear weapons could be stationed in Belarus again this year. As Russian President Vladimir Putin said on March 25, they are about 10 aircraft capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons and an Iskander missile system capable of being armed with nuclear warheads.
He also announced that the construction of a tactical nuclear weapons storage facility in Belarus should be completed by July this year.
Almost 30 years ago, all Soviet nuclear weapons were withdrawn to Russia – not only from Belarus, but also from Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The three states renounced the nuclear weapons that were on their territory and signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In return, they were guaranteed their sovereignty and territorial integrity by the other contracting states, above all the USA and Russia. This “Budapest Memorandum” was agreed at the December 1994 meeting of what was then the CSCE (Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, today the OSCE).
“Nuclear Fortress” of the Soviet Union
Pavel Podvig from the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva points out that new cooperation between Russia and Belarus in the field of nuclear weapons has been discussed for some time. In February 2022, for example, the constitution in Belarus was amended and the provision on the country’s nuclear-weapon-free status was deleted, “which opened up the legal possibility of stationing nuclear warheads on Belarusian territory,” emphasizes the expert.
According to military expert Alexandr Alesin, “a certain number of nuclear weapons carriers” were being prepared even before Putin made his announcement. He recalls that in Soviet times Belarus was a “nuclear fortress”. Around two-thirds of all Soviet medium- and short-range missiles, including warheads, were located there.
But after all nuclear weapons were withdrawn, ruler Alexander Lukashenko refused to remove the associated infrastructure needed to store and deploy the missiles.
Over time, the facilities fell into disrepair, but Alesin does not rule out the possibility that some are still in a usable condition: “It is possible that one of the more or less preserved facilities will be modernized and adapted so that it can be used as a nuclear weapons storage facility serves.”
SU bombers and Iskander systems
According to Putin, ten aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons have been prepared in Belarus with Russian help, Alesin said. “Most likely, these are SU-24 front-line bombers of Soviet design, originally designed to conduct nuclear strikes with a breakthrough in the air defense system at low altitudes,” the expert said.
According to him, there were 35 such aircraft in Belarus in 2011, some of them bombers, others reconnaissance planes. After the country’s renunciation of nuclear weapons, these aircraft were equipped with radio-electronic equipment and all the means of controlling the weapons necessary for their use.
In 2012, the bombers were decommissioned and then only stored. Some were sold to South Sudan. “But apparently there was a certain amount left, and these planes were modernized by the Russian company Sukhoi,” Alesin said.
In addition, Belarus has Iskander-M complexes, which, due to their technical characteristics, can carry nuclear warheads.
Are existing contracts violated?
Belarus and Russia are contracting parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, i.e. on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. “There is no talk of handing over nuclear weapons to Belarus. The practice of stockpiling nuclear weapons on the territory of another country and training that country’s personnel in how to use them already existed in the United States and NATO in the mid-1960s. It was generally assumed that this practice was not contrary to the Treaty,” explains Pavel Podvig.
The Soviet Union saw it that way too. According to Podvig, NATO continues to do so today. For example, there are American nuclear weapons in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey.
However, the expert points out that since the mid-2010s the Kremlin has changed its position and made it clear that, from the Russian point of view, the stationing of nuclear weapons in other countries and the training of personnel are in conflict with the NPT: “This position was officially confirmed many times. And on March 25, it was declared that Russia would do whatever the US would do and that it would not violate any commitments.”
What risks does Belarus carry?
“This step will not bring additional security to either Belarus or Russia. This is a political signal for a closer union between the states, and it should be perceived as such,” says Podvig. In his opinion, this does not create any new risks: “There will be another nuclear weapons depot and it cannot be ruled out that it will remain empty. Then it will not even be the target of a missile attack or similar actions. One should not dramatize the situation beyond what is necessary.”
Political scientist Artyom Shraibman, on the other hand, believes that Belarus could very well become a target should the war between Russia and Ukraine escalate into a Russia-NATO confrontation.
“It is clear that missiles would fly to tactical nuclear weapons storage sites and Belarusian airfields because planes would take off from them. It is also clear that one would want to hit the missile systems handed over by the Russians. This would pose a danger to the people of the nearby towns, but also to the whole country, depending on how strong the attack would be. That would make Belarus a potential battlefield, that’s the biggest risk,” Shraibman said.
He also notes that nuclear weapons would also create a Russian military base or a new Russian contingent in Belarus. Expanding such a presence would further deepen the military integration between Moscow and Minsk and, as a result, the international isolation of Belarus. “It will then also be more difficult to justify why the sanctions against Belarus should remain weaker than those against Russia,” emphasizes the expert.
Adaptation from the Russian: Markian Ostapchuk
Author: Emma Levashkevich