Russia accused of taking Belarus ‘nuclear hostage’ with deal to station missiles there
Ukraine has accused Russia of destabilising Belarus and making its smaller neighbour into “a nuclear hostage”, after Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Moscow has made a deal to station tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory.
The country’s opposition leader in exile, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, said the move “grossly contradicts the will of the Belarusian people” and reflected the further subjugation of Belarus under Russian control.
The Russian president’s suggestions that the move would not breach non-proliferation agreements and that it was consistent with similar arrangements that the US has with several of its European allies was given short shrift in Kyiv.
Oleksiy Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s national security and defence council, called the deal “a step towards internal destabilisation” of Belarus, and said it maximised what he termed the level of “negative perception and public rejection” of Russia and Putin in Belarusian society.
“The Kremlin took Belarus as a nuclear hostage,” he wrote on Twitter.
Mykhailo Podolyak, another senior adviser to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, mocked Putin’s plan, saying the Russian leader was “too predictable”. “Making a statement about tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, he admits that he is afraid of losing & all he can do is scare with tactics,” Podolyak tweeted on Sunday.
Putin has repeatedly made nuclear threats or escalated nuclear rhetoric after the full invasion of Ukraine, but this is the first time he has announced a plan to station nuclear weapons in another country.
The Russian president said on Saturday that he was acting after negotiations with his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, who he said had “long raised the question” of a nuclear deployment on his country’s territory.
Earlier in the week, Putin threatened a response to Britain’s announcement that it would supply Ukraine with armour-piercing tank shells made with depleted uranium, and mentioned the shells again in his remarks on Saturday, but his justification of the move rested mainly on the presence of about 100 US nuclear bombs in Europe.
“There is nothing unusual here either: firstly, the United States has been doing this for decades,” Putin said. “They have long deployed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allied countries. We agreed that we will do the same, without violating our obligations – I emphasise, without violating our international obligations on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.”
Lukashenko staged a referendum in February last year, revoking Belarus’s non-nuclear status, but the opposition rejected the vote as meaningless under conditions of political repression and following the 2020 presidential election that kept him in office, generally agreed to have been rigged.
“Russia’s deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus directly violates the constitution of Belarus and grossly contradicts the will of the Belarusian people to assume the non-nuclear state status expressed in the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Belarus of 1990,” Tsikhanouskaya said.
“This unacceptable development, making Belarus a potential target for preventive or retaliation strikes, became possible because of the illegal seizure of power by the illegitimate regime of Lukashenko.”
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned Belarus it could face further sanctions if it hosted Russian nuclear weapons. “Belarus hosting Russian nuclear weapons would mean an irresponsible escalation and threat to European security. Belarus can still stop it, it is their choice. The EU stands ready to respond with further sanctions,” Borrell said in a tweet.
Moscow has 5,977 nuclear warheads in its inventory, according to the Federation of American Scientists, and has long had the capability to strike a target anywhere in the world. The US has slightly fewer, at 5,428.
The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation estimates that there are about 100 US nuclear weapons – airborne gravity bombs – stored in Europe across six bases in five countries, although they are retained in US control.
The US played down concerns about Putin’s announcement and the potential for Moscow to use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine. “We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture nor any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon. We remain committed to the collective defence of the Nato alliance,” a senior US administration official said.
The official noted that Russia and Belarus had been speaking about the transfer of nuclear weapons for some time.
Analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said in a note late on Saturday that the risk of escalation to nuclear war remained “extremely low”. They said: “ISW continues to assess that Putin is a risk-averse actor who repeatedly threatens to use nuclear weapons without any intention of following through in order to break western resolve.”
However, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons called Putin’s announcement an extremely dangerous escalation. “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,” it said on Twitter.
While the Belarusian army has not formally fought in Ukraine, Minsk and Moscow have a close military relationship. Minsk allowed Moscow to use Belarusian territory to send troops into Ukraine last year and the two nations stepped up joint military training.
On Sunday, Putin dismissed suggestions that Moscow was forging a military alliance with Beijing, claiming instead that western powers were building a new “axis” similar to the partnership between Germany, Italy and Japan during the second world war.
“We are not creating any military alliance with China,” Putin said on state television. “Yes, we have cooperation in the sphere of military-technical interaction. We are not hiding this. Everything is transparent, there is nothing secret.”
China and Russia signed a “no limits” partnership accord in early 2022, weeks before Putin sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine. Beijing has refrained from criticising Putin’s decision and has touted a peace plan for Ukraine.
The Russian president named Australia, New Zealand and South Korea as being in line to join a “global Nato” and referenced a defence agreement signed by Britain and Japan earlier this year.
“That is why western analysts … are talking about the west starting to build a new axis similar to the one created in the 1930s by the fascist regimes of Germany and Italy and militarist Japan,” Putin said. His words reflect his ongoing attempt to suggest that Ukraine is run by Nazis and that its western supporters are hellbent on menacing Russia.
Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union and was subjected to devastation at the hands of Hitler’s forces, has consistently rejected those parallels as spurious pretexts for a war of imperial conquest.
Reuters contributed to this report