Nuclear weapons are returning to Belarus after decades as the war in Ukraine drags on. During a speech on Saturday night, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a plan to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, a country that borders both Russia and Ukraine. Putin pointed out that the U.S. has its own nuclear weapons stationed in partner countries around Europe.
“We agreed that we will do the same—without violating our obligations, I emphasize, without violating our international obligations on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons,” he said.Tactical nuclear weapons are shorter-range missiles and bombs than the “strategic” weapons that the U.S. and Russia can use to strike faraway territories. That Putin might deploy such weapons in Ukraine despite international taboos has been part of the debate around the conflict since the start. Belarus used to have nuclear weapons when it was part of the Soviet Union, as did Kazakhstan and Ukraine. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Belarus was host to 81 SS-25s—a kind of intercontinental-ballistic missile that rides on a mobile launcher—as well as various other tactical nuclear weapons. After the fall of the Soviet Union, all three fledgling nations returned their nuclear arsenals to Moscow.In his speech, Putin noted that Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko had repeatedly asked him about nuclear weapons. Lukashenko took power in 1994 and has led the country ever since. In 2021, he officially recognized Crimea as part of Russia and offered to play host to nuclear weapons again. In a speech in 2022 Lukashenko reminded everyone that Belarusian jets and helicopters could be easily converted to carry nuclear weapons. That same year, Belarus passed a referendum that both allowed the country to host nuclear weapons and absolved former leaders of crimes they committed in office.
Lukashenko is one of Russia’s closest allies and host to thousands of its soldiers, but has stopped short of officially sending its own troops. Mink’s cozy relationship with Putin isn’t popular domestically. It’s been condemned by opposition leaders and has spurned a protest movement.Despite this, it seems the Belarussian dictator will finally get his wish. Russia didn’t announce how many weapons it would send to Belarus nor did it detail when they would arrive. Putin said that Russia would maintain control of the weapons and that the storage facilities would be completed by July 1st.The United States stores nuclear weapons in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. NATO doesn’t share how many U.S. nukes are in Europe, but experts put the number at around 100 aircraft dropped bombs scattered across six bases in partner countries. Under a “sharing arrangement,” troops in Germany, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands are trained how to use these weapons in a time of war. Though the U.S. has said it still maintains control over the weapons and that Turkey is just used as a storage facility and is not, technically, a member of this “sharing arrangement.”Russia recently unilaterally suspended its participation in the New START treaty with the U.S., which gave both nations insight into the others’ nuclear capabilities. In his speech announcing the move, Putin referred to "[understanding] for ourselves" the nuclear capabilities of France and the U.K.—NATO nations that maintain their own nuclear weapon stockpiles—before restarting relations.Washington said it wouldn’t be reacting to Putin’s move. “We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture nor any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon,” the Pentagon told Reuters. “We remain committed to the collective defense of the NATO alliance.”The news of the nuclear deployment in Belarus came days after the U.K. announced it was sending Challenger 2 tanks equipped with depleted uranium rounds to Ukraine. During his speech on Saturday, Putin said he would deploy Russia’s own depleted uranium rounds should the U.K’s ammunition make it to Ukraine.“Russia, of course, has what it needs to answer,” Putin said. “Without exaggeration, we have hundreds of thousands of such shells. We have not used them yet.”