After Alexander Lukashenko visited Beijing earlier this spring, Western leaders feared he might have asked his counterpart Xi Jinping to send, on behalf of Vladimir Putin, lethal weapons to Russia. As this did not happen, the interest for Belarus diminished. But not for long, as on March 25, the day the Belarusian opposition celebrated the 105th anniversary of the adoption of the declaration of independence of the Belarusian Democratic Republic, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would transfer tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus. Initially, he justified his decision by citing the need to act similarly to the United States, which ” deployed their tactical nuclear warheads on the territory of their allied countries several decades ago.” Moreover, he claimed that one of the reasons for taking such a decision was the UK’s intention to supply Ukraine with tank shells made with depleted uranium. Later, however, the Russian president presented the deployment as a response to long-standing requests by Alexander Lukashenko, who had insisted, during several meetings, that he place nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory. At the end of his appearance on Russia 24, the Russian leader stated that his country would retain control over warheads deployed in Belarus and added that a nuclear weapons storage facility will be built there by July 1.
Vladimir Putin made the announcement just days after Xi Jinping visited Moscow, when the two had issued a joint statement saying “All nuclear powers must not deploy their nuclear weapons beyond their national territories, and they must withdraw all nuclear weapons deployed abroad.” However, the breach of the statement by the Russian president showed that he was aware of the difficulties faced by the Russian army in the so-called “special military operation”, and wanted to convince Western leaders to stop increasing their military aid to Ukraine. Therefore, Vladimir Putin has resumed his threats against US allies (including the UK, Poland, and the Baltic states) on the possibility of launching a nuclear attack if they refuse to fulfil his ultimatum. In an attempt to be as persuasive as possible, two months later, he prompted the Russian and Belarusian defense ministers Sergey Shoigu and Viktor Khrenin to sign an agreement defining the procedure for keeping nuclear warheads in the Belarusian storage facility and announced that the first weapons would arrive in the former Soviet republic on July 7-8. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that Vladimir Putin will turn the “special military operation” launched on the territory of Ukraine into a nuclear confrontation with Western states. Using this kind of rhetoric only betrays the weakness of the Russian president, who intends to avoid, at all costs, the defeat of his armed forces by Ukrainian soldiers.
By deploying atomic weapons in the Republic of Belarus (at the expense of the Kaliningrad exclave), Vladimir Putin has instead sought to confirm Alexander Lukashenko’s status as a co-aggressor in the Ukrainian war. To justify his decision, he cited his counterpart’s repeated requests to host nuclear warheads, but at first glance, it seems that the Russian president was mistaken, as the Belarusian leader has been advocating since last year in favor of turning Belarus into a state possessing its own nuclear weapons, not into a republic that offered to host Russia’s warheads. This change was also reflected in the new Belarusian Constitution, whose Article 18 provides, after the referendum on February 27, 2022, for the abandonment of the status of Belarus as a non-nuclear country. Alexander Lukashenko resumed his efforts to turn the state into a nuclear power on the first day of voting in that popular consultation, since, in a phone call with French president Emmanuel Macron, he indicated his willingness to ask his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to return the 81 nuclear warheads that Belarus ceded to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union if the US decides to move atomic bombs to Poland and Lithuania.
However, the Belarusian president agreed to host Russian tactical nuclear weapons, as he perceived them as a new security guarantee offered by his counterpart in the event of a Western attack on Belarus. In order to obtain further such guarantees, Alexander Lukashenko permitted since February 2022 the organization of Allied Resolve military exercises, the use of Belarus as a launching pad for the Russian army’s invasion of Ukraine, and the arrival of a contingent of a thousand Russian soldiers on the territory of this former Soviet republic. In return, he formed a regional military task force and obtained both the transfer of Iskander-M and S 400 air defense systems, as well as the modernization of 10 Su 25 aircraft capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The transfer of these weapons outside Russia is therefore not surprising, given that after the 2020 presidential elections, Alexander Lukashenko has pursued only one goal: to keep himself in power. The stationing of Russian nuclear warheads on the territory of Belarus will prompt Western leaders to impose new sanctions against the two presidents and will increase the degree of antagonism in Belarusian society towards Russia. According to a Chatham House poll conducted last year, 80% of Belarusian citizens oppose the deployment of nuclear weapons in their country. However, in the long run, Vladimir Putin could invoke the need to protect Russian nuclear warheads as a pretext to intervene in Belarus and prevent (even by sending soldiers to Minsk) a possible uprising that would aim to transform the Belarusian regime from an authoritarian-hegemonic one into a more democratic one, thus guaranteeing Lukashenko’s political survival, and with it, keeping this former Soviet republic in Moscow’s sphere of influence.
Photo source: meduza.io