Why is Putin moving nuclear weapons to Belarus?

Announcement labelled a ‘bluff’ but escalation could have serious consequences for Russia, its allies and Nato

Vladimir Putin and Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko in Moscow in 2017
Vladimir Putin and, right, the Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko
(Image credit: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Nato has condemned the announcement by Vladimir Putin that Russia is to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighbouring Belarus as “dangerous and irresponsible” rhetoric.

Al Jazeera reported that Putin had struck a deal with his long-standing ally to complete construction of a storage facility to hold tactical nuclear weapons by 1 July this year, and has already stationed ten aircraft in Belarus capable of carrying such weapons.

The Russian president insisted this would not violate nuclear non-proliferation agreements, instead comparing it to the US stationing its weapons in Europe as part of nuclear-sharing arrangements with five of its allies: Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

“The move, while not unexpected, is one of Russia’s most pronounced nuclear signals yet and a warning to Nato over its military support for Ukraine,” said Reuters. The news site added that the development is “significant since it [Russia] had been proud, until now, of not having deployed nuclear weapons outside its borders, unlike the United States. This may be the first time since the mid-1990s that it plans to do so.”

What did the papers say?

“When the Russian president uses the word ‘nuclear’ the world pays attention and that appears to be a major reason why he said it,” reported CNN, but “as usual with Putin, the world should read the fine print and check the context”.

Facing stalemate on the battlefield, growing unrest at home and an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court, “his suggestion that Russia would start storing its bombs in Belarus may add up to less than it appears”, agreed The Guardian’s world affairs editor, Julian Borger.

He said nuclear experts are “sceptical” of the ambitious timeline set out by Putin, pointing out that Russia “has been working on a nuclear weapon storage facility in Kaliningrad for at least seven years and it is still not clear whether the bombs have actually arrived there. So far, no satellite imagery has surfaced that might suggest something similar is being built in Belarus,” said Borger.

Also calling it a “bluff”, the Independent said that while “obviously more substantive than past vague threats about the use of weapons of mass destruction, there is not necessarily any reason to believe that this prospective deployment carries any more danger than existed before.

“At its simplest, if Vladimir Putin wants to use a nuclear bomb to help him to win in the battlefields of Donetsk, then he can do so just as well from Russian as Belarusian territory (or at least, with only marginally more inconvenience),” the news site’s editorial concluded.

What next?

Putin’s move has, unsurprisingly, prompted outrage in Kyiv, with Ukraine calling for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to “counter the Kremlin’s nuclear blackmail”.

But Al Jazeera reported that the Biden administration “reacted cautiously” to Putin’s statement, and the US, for now at least, appears “unperturbed”, said CNN.

“We haven’t seen anything that would cause us to change our own strategic nuclear deterrent posture,”, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told broadcaster CBC on Sunday.

Crucially, Putin has said he would not hand over control of Russia’s nuclear weapons to Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, but the move nevertheless places Belarus in an increasingly precarious position.

On Sunday, a top security adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Russia’s plans were a “step towards internal destabilisation” of the country, which has grown ever closer to Russia since the war in Ukraine began.

See more

This view was echoed by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the Belarusian opposition, who said Russia “acts as the occupying force, violating national security and putting Belarus on the collision course with its neighbours and the international community”.

Perhaps more significantly for Putin, the BBC said the announcement to station weapons in Belarus comes only days after Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow, during which Russia and China 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”.

Former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, tweeted that this was unlikely to go down well in Beijing and may even have “humiliated” the Chinese premier.

See more

Despite this, The Guardian’s Borger said Putin “can expect the global backlash to be muted due to widely shared impatience over many years with the US-Nato sharing arrangements”.

Yet though many are calling Putin’s bluff, the fact remains that deploying Russian tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus risks not only potential escalation on the battlefield, it also moves them closer to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, all Nato allies.

Setting out the dangers of such an escalation, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) warned: “In the context of the war in Ukraine, the likelihood of miscalculation or misinterpretation is extremely high. Sharing nuclear weapons makes the situation much worse and risks catastrophic humanitarian consequences.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.