President Vladimir Putin’s 25 March announcement that Belarus and Russia intend to replicate NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements is likely to turn into another miscalculation by the Kremlin. Based on the reactions to the move, it is unlikely that the Kremlin will achieve any of the goals it might be pursuing with the move.
If Moscow had hoped to increase fear and division among NATO allies by announcing that Russia would build a storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus and deploy their nuclear-capable Iskander short-range missiles there, no such panic has been detected so far.
Ahead of the 5 April meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated the view that the Allies had “not seen any changes in Russia’s nuclear posture that requires any changes in our posture” and dryly pointed out that “NATO Allies represent 50% of the world’s military might”.
The sober response can be explained by the fact that Russia’s stationing of nuclear weapons in Belarus would not alter the strategic balance in Europe. The move did not come as a big surprise since Minsk had dropped Belarus’ nuclear-free status from the constitution in a sham referendum last February. Russia and Belarus had also begun certifying Belarusian aircraft as a means of nuclear delivery so that Putin could announce on 25 March that ten such aircraft could carry Russian nuclear weapons.
The sober response (from NATO) can be explained by the fact that Russia’s stationing of nuclear weapons in Belarus would not alter the strategic balance in Europe. Katia Glod & Oliver Meier
Irritating Russia’s partners
Moreover, Russia has yet to garner support from the international community following the announcement of its new policy of sharing nuclear weapons with Belarus. Putin tried (again) to point the finger at NATO by arguing “that the United States has been doing this for decades”. He may have been trying to appeal to the many non-aligned states and China. As members of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), these countries have long been critical of NATO’s nuclear sharing practices, under which the United States deploys nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Belgium, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and Turkey.
But Putin’s attempt to cite the NATO precedent did not resonate with some states that had previously shared Russia’s criticism of NATO’s nuclear sharing practices. At a 31 March UN Security Council meeting, Brazil noted that “two wrongs do not make a right”. Ecuador regretted Russia’s “narrative and actions have continued to escalate global concerns.”
More importantly, Putin’s plan to share nuclear weapons with Aliaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus’ authoritarian president, may also not go down well in Beijing. Just a few days before the Kremlin’s nuclear sharing coup, Putin and Xi Jinping, in the joint communiqué of the 20-22 March (coming out of the Chinese leader’s state visit to Russia), had repeated their mantra that “all nuclear-weapon states should refrain from deploying nuclear weapons abroad.” At the UN Security Council, the Chinese representative wryly cited this call for “the abolition of nuclear-sharing arrangements, as well as for the withdrawal of all such weapons deployed abroad” back to his Russian counterpart.
Putin’s plan to share nuclear weapons with Aliaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus’ authoritarian president, may also not go down well in Beijing. Katia Glod & Oliver Meier
With friends like these…
Integrating Russian nonstrategic nuclear forces into Belarus would also be counterproductive to Russia’s ambition to tie Belarus closer to itself. Nuclear weapons are a notoriously bad basis for enhancing security cooperation. It is not surprising that Aliaksandr Lukashenka waited for nearly a week before addressing the issue publicly. Although Lukashenka has often expressed the wish to possess nuclear weapons, it would have been one thing to refer to nuclear weapons as a deterrence against any hypothetical Western or domestic efforts to weaken his grip on power, and quite another to become hostage to increasingly unpredictable outcomes.
With strong anti-nuclear sentiment at home (over 80% of Belarusians oppose the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus) Lukashenka realises that placing Russian tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil would run risks similar to those of sending Belarusian troops to fight in Ukraine. He could lose the remaining public support (currently around 30%), which might trigger new public protests and encourage defections in the elites. Belarus’ military facilities could also become a target for a conventional strike by Western allies if Russia were to use its tactical weapons stationed there against Ukraine.
From a Russian perspective, it must also be deeply worrying that the Belarusian president is apparently not a fan of the kind of nuclear sharing that Putin had painstakingly outlined by arguing that “we are not handing over” nuclear weapons to Belarus. Yet, Lukashenka, in a State of the Nation address on 31 March, warned “Don’t say we will just be looking after them, and these are not our weapons”. Rather, he argued that “These are our weapons and they will contribute to ensuring sovereignty and independence.” He also went far beyond Putin’s initiative by raising the spectre of Russia deploying intercontinental nuclear missiles in Belarus.
With strong anti-nuclear sentiment at home, Lukashenka realises that placing Russian tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil would run risks similar to those of sending Belarusian troops to fight in Ukraine. Katia Glod & Oliver Meier
How to make the most of Russia’s nuclear sharing policy
Against the background of these counterproductive effects of Vladimir Putin’s intention to share nuclear weapons with Belarus, NATO states have every reason to stay calm and carry on. They should resist the temptation to react to Putin’s announcement by rethinking the Alliance’s current position that there is no need to deploy ground-based intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles in Europe. Placing nonstrategic nuclear weapons in NATO countries bordering Russia – an idea that has excited the interest of Poland – would only increase the risks of a direct confrontation, including nuclear, while providing limited deterrence benefits.
Allies should instead exploit the fact that Russia can no longer point fingers at NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement. They should also continue to signal a willingness to resume talks on strategic stability. The conversation about an arms control framework to replace the New START treaty had been burdened by several imbalances of nuclear postures. Russia had wanted to address these imbalances by bringing such inequities into one “strategic equation”. With Putin’s announcement, one of these imbalances, namely that NATO is practising nuclear sharing while Russia was not, has evaporated.
NATO allies should attempt to use this Russian hypocrisy to decrease polarisation among the countries that are party to the NPT. As seen during the last NPT review conference of August 2022, many countries could unite in criticism of NATO’s unique nuclear sharing arrangement. That front is likely to show cracks or may even break down altogether. NATO may speed up that process by heeding the calls of some critics to increase the transparency on its nuclear sharing arrangements. It could then call on Russia to follow suit, further accelerating the break-up of old fronts among NPT member states.
Russia’s announcement to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus is unlikely to change military calculations. If anything, countries supporting Ukraine in its defence against Russia’s invasion will see Putin’s move as a further indicator of the Kremlin’s irresponsible policies. Katia Glod & Oliver Meier
Russia’s announcement to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus is unlikely to change military calculations. If anything, countries supporting Ukraine in its defence against Russia’s invasion will see Putin’s move as a further indicator of the Kremlin’s irresponsible policies. This creates political space to explore how the risky and damaging replication of NATO’s nuclear sharing policies might be used to prepare the ground for reciprocal arms control and a more unified NPT membership.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or all of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Vyacheslav Argenberg