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8 April 2023: Understanding the Russia-Belarus Nexus

Context: Russia is planning to station tactical nuclear weapons on Belarus’ territory.

Background: In the latest escalation in the Russia-Ukraine war, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced that Russia plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. Tactical nuclear weapons refer to small nuclear weapons and delivery systems used on the battlefield or for limited strikes.

The Significance of This Sudden Announcement

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, said the announcement was prompted by the UK’s decision last week to supply Ukraine with armour-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium. Depleted uranium ammunition has an increased ability to breach the defences on tanks and has been described by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) as a “chemically and radiologically toxic heavy metal”. 

Russia claims that Russia’s position on strategic nuclear weapons in Belarus does not violate any international agreements signed by Moscow, as control of the weapons will remain with Russia just as the US controls its nuclear weapons on the territories of its allies. Furthermore, unlike in the case of strategic nuclear weapons, there is no arms control agreement between the US and Russia on tactical nuclear weapons.

Past such events

As Mr Putin said, “America has been doing this for decades. He has long placed his strategic nuclear weapons on the territory of his allies, referring to the US nuclear weapons stationed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.

Interestingly, the announcement contradicts a joint statement made last week by Mr Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, where they called on nuclear states to refrain from deploying nuclear weapons overseas. Russia has already helped Belarus upgrade its warplanes so that they can carry nuclear weapons. This is the first time that Russia is deploying nuclear weapons outside its borders. Placing such weapons in Belarus would allow Russia to launch attacks more easily and quickly.

Belarus: Strategic Objective or Simply Random Decision?

As a former Soviet state that, like Kazakhstan and Ukraine, handed over its nuclear weapons to Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Belarus has developed close military and political ties with Russia. It is one of Russia’s closest and few remaining allies. It is predominantly Orthodox, like Russia, whose population is almost entirely Russian-speaking. There are also some border controls between the two countries. Belarus is a member of the Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, as well as the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia has leased two military installations in Belarus, both inherited from the Soviet era. In addition, Belarus receives subsidized oil and natural gas imports from Russia. As with Ukraine, Russia wants to keep Belarus within its sphere of influence and therefore supports the regime of Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko (often dubbed ‘Europe’s last dictator’), whom Russia considers friendly.

The strategic location of Belarus

The geostrategic position of Belarus, between Russia and Ukraine and between Russia and Poland, makes it very important to Russia. It also shares borders with three NATO members: Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. For a long time, Belarus has been used by Russia as a forward base for power projection, giving it strategic depth. In fact, Belarus has been used as a launchpad by Russia to send troops and launch attacks in the ongoing war. However, Russia-Belarus relations have had their fair share of trouble.

Past relations between Russia and Belarus

In 2014, Belarus refused to accept the annexation of Crimea by Russia and even hosted the Minsk talks. It also resisted pressure from Russia to host a permanent military base. However, that all changed in 2020 when Belarus was rocked by anti-government protests over what was widely seen as rigged presidential elections. Mr Lukashenko was isolated by the West, while Russia helped him with a $1.5 billion loan while acknowledging the election results and promising to intervene if necessary.

The protests were brutally suppressed, and a referendum in February 2022 changed the country’s constitution to specify that Belarus would be a nuclear-free zone and remain neutral. However, in March 2021, Belarus had already agreed to the presence of a joint Belarusian-Russian military unit on its territory, effectively ending its neutrality. Since the outbreak of Russia–the Ukraine War, Belarus has repeatedly supported Russia when voting on UN General Assembly resolutions.

So, now Mr Putin sees Mr Lukashenko as a trusted ally. Belarus, for its part, is pleased with Putin’s announcement because it says it has long wanted nuclear weapons as Western pressure aims to change its political and geopolitical trajectory. Minsk says it needs these weapons to counter NATO’s military buildup near its borders.

Future Challenges

The latest move by Russia clearly escalates the Russia-Ukraine war into an entirely new dimension—the nuclear arena—by bringing tactical nuclear weapons next to NATO members. It is also probably to prevent the West from giving Ukraine more advanced weapons. But it also gives the West an opportunity to use this pretext to further escalate the war. This step is not auspicious for peace.

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