Putin announces nuclear weapons deployment in Belarus for the first time since 1990

The revived uncertainty of the nuclear threat

PHOTO/AP - Misiles balísticos rusos RS-24 Yars  en la Plaza Roja durante el desfile militar del Día de la Victoria en Moscú, Rusia, el 24 de junio de 2020
PHOTO/AP - Russian RS-24 Yars ballistic missiles on Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia, June 24, 2020

"God forbid that I should have to make a decision to use these weapons, but I will not hesitate if we are attacked". Belarusian President Alekshandr Lukashenko's speeches usually have the alarming tone that comes with being the Kremlin's main ally in Europe, but his latest statements on the use of nuclear weapons revive the embers of the old ghost of the 20th century. 

The date was fully framed. On 8 July, Putin's Russia would begin the transfer of its much-talked-about tactical nuclear weapons to its neighbouring country, with everything in place for the propaganda discourse on the deterrent to the West. The two leaders agreed at a meeting in Sochi, Putin's summer residence on the Black Sea, in an iconic image for the unstoppable arms race: "We will begin the deployment of the corresponding weapons on your territory". But Lukashenko, once again, was early to pull out the nuclear card in the face of the Kremlin's millimetric agenda. 

It took five days for the Belarusian president to break the deadline for the sake of being the world's media centre. "We have missiles and bombs that we have received from Russia," he declared in an interview with Russian state television. Not without warning that they are three times more powerful than the atomic bombs the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

SPUTNIK/GAVRILL  GRIGOROV - El presidente ruso Vladimir Putin se reúne con su homólogo bielorruso Alexander Lukashenko en Sochi el 9 de junio de 2023
SPUTNIK/GAVRILL  GRIGOROV - Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi on 9 June 2023

It's not the first backlash between the partners, least of all over nuclear weapons. Lukashenko's threat to use nuclear weapons derailed Russia's own goal of transferring the arsenal to Belarus because the Kremlin claimed control over the use of the warheads. It was Russia's own Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, who took it upon himself to secure such prerogatives in an official visit to Minsk and in a memorandum signed with his counterpart, Victor Khrenin. 

This is not just a teaser. Lukashenko's supporting actor complex derails the announcement, which was scheduled to coincide with the NATO summit scheduled for 11-12 July in Lithuania, just a few kilometres from Russia's nuclear arsenal across the border. For Putin, this is no coincidence. The deployment is merely a response to the UK's supply of depleted uranium to Ukraine and, above all, an imitation of what "the United States has been doing for decades": deploying its tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of its allied countries. According to the Russian leader, this does not violate international obligations because "there is nothing unusual here either". 

Union versus union. If the NATO summit will strengthen allied military cooperation, Russia plans something similar with the pro-regime former Soviet republics. At the fruitful meeting in Sochi, Putin also announced a plan of action in the face of "external pressure" to be used in the increasingly near future: "We need to focus on our strengths and on ourselves. If we develop such an action plan, then our partners will definitely join in, I am sure, both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. We will create attractive conditions". Lukashenko had another way of selling the alliance: "nuclear weapons for all". 

PHOTO/AP - Misiles balísticos rusos RS-24 Yars  en la Plaza Roja durante el desfile militar del Día de la Victoria en Moscú, Rusia, el 24 de junio de 2020. El presidente ruso, Vladimir Putin, advirtió que no dudaría en usar armas nucleares para evitar el intento de Ucrania de recuperar el control de sus regiones ocupadas que Moscú está a punto de absorber
PHOTO/AP - Russian RS-24 Yars ballistic missiles on Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia, 24 June 2020

Goodbye to New START 

Russia left more than ten years of nuclear disarmament up in the air months ago. At the end of the first anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Putin suspended Russia's participation in New START, the agreement negotiated by the administration of Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 that limited the nuclear arsenals of the two powers to 1,550 operational warheads and 700 deployed launchers, including intercontinental ballistic missiles. A now short-lived dream of nuclear non-proliferation. 

"I am forced to announce today that Russia will suspend its participation in the Strategic Offensive Arms Treaty". The reasons for Putin's decision may have many sides, but Joe Biden's visit to Kiev and the recessionary course of Russian troops on the Ukrainian military map may have had enough weight to put a de facto end to bilateral nuclear arms control. The New Start will almost certainly have no successor when it expires in early 2026, and neither Washington nor Moscow will have a formal means of managing their nuclear standoff. 

PHOTO/Servicio de Prensa del Ministerio de Defensa Ruso via AP - En esta foto de archivo tomada de un video distribuido por el Servicio de Prensa del Ministerio de Defensa de Rusia, el 9 de diciembre de 2020, se lanza un cohete desde un sistema de misiles como parte de una prueba de misiles balísticos intercontinentales
PHOTO/Russian Defence Ministry Press Service via AP - In this file photo taken from a video distributed by the Russian Defence Ministry Press Service, Dec. 9, 2020, a rocket is launched from a missile system as part of an intercontinental ballistic missile test

Aware of the gravity, the United States has since February 2023 reiterated its request to Russia to respect New START, but Putin continues to make the same demands: that the White House end its support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion and bring France and the United Kingdom into arms control talks. 

The tension unleashed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine makes mediation impossible for the powers that still hold 90 per cent of the world's nuclear weapons. This opens the door to a new era of military deterrence, arms race and instability. It now remains to reckon with the new player on the chessboard: Xi Jinping's China.

XINHUA/JU PENG - El presidente chino Xi Jinping, a la izquierda, y el líder norcoreano Kim Jong Un saludan desde una limusina abierta mientras viajan por una calle en Corea del Norte. Pyongyang, Corea del Norte
XINHUA/JU PENG - Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wave from an open limousine as they travel down a street in North Korea. Pyongyang, North Korea

Point of no return 

"The world is drifting into one of the most dangerous periods in human history". The conclusions of the latest report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) are the most discouraging yet.  

The number of potential nuclear warheads continues to grow and modernise in the nine nuclear powers - the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea - as do global geopolitical tensions. A breeding ground that, together with the lack of mechanisms for dialogue among these powers, "increases the risk that nuclear weapons could be used aggressively for the first time since World War II". That is the Stockholm centre's warning after publishing the number of nuclear weapons worldwide.

AFP/AFP - Desglose de los inventarios estimados de ojivas nucleares listas para usar, a principios de 2023, según el Monitor de Prohibición de Armas Nucleares
AFP/AFP - Breakdown of estimated inventories of ready-to-use nuclear warheads, as of early 2023, according to the Nuclear Weapons Ban Monitor

Compliance to the bitter and apparent contradiction it publishes. While the number of warheads in the world has decreased, there are more potentially usable nuclear warheads than in the previous year. Of the 12,512 warheads counted in January 2023, about 9,576 were ready for potential use, 1% more than in the previous year. However, the number of total nuclear weapons is down compared to 2022: Washington has fallen from 5,428 warheads last year to 5,244; Russia's figure of 5,977 is down to 5,889 warheads. 

But the figures are of little use. The SIPRI report itself acknowledges that, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, transparency about nuclear weapons has been drastically reduced, including that of China, the world's third largest nuclear power and the only notable increase in its nuclear armament. "China has begun a significant expansion of its nuclear arsenal," the report states.

AFP/VALENTIN RAKOVSKY - Gráfico que muestra el arsenal de armas nucleares tácticas rusas, después de que el presidente ruso Vladimir Putin anunciara que pronto se desplegarían en Bielorrusia
AFP/VALENTIN RAKOVSKY - Graphic showing Russia's tactical nuclear weapons arsenal, after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced they would soon be deployed in Belarus

It is 60 nuclear warheads more than last year, 410 the total number of nuclear weapons that the Asian giant has, although these are only approximations. China has never disclosed any data on its nuclear arsenal. The numbers used by these organisations come from the US Department of Defence. The figures that Xi Jinping's regime has declined to disclose are still pending. 

"It is increasingly difficult to reconcile this trend with China's statements that its goal is to have only the minimum number of nuclear forces necessary for its national security," admits Hans M. Kristensen, a research associate at the institute and director of the Nuclear Information Project of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).  

Projections that could point to total warheads for Xi Jinping's regime are stratospheric. China is currently the second largest defence spender after the United States.

XINHUA/JU PENG - El presidente chino Xi Jinping, a la izquierda, y el líder norcoreano Kim Jong Un saludan desde una limusina abierta mientras viajan por una calle en Corea del Norte. Pyongyang, Corea del Norte
XINHUA/JU PENG - Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wave from an open limousine as they travel down a street in North Korea. Pyongyang, North Korea

The other seven powers have publicly announced their intention to invest in new nuclear programmes and upgrade their arsenals. "There is an urgent need to restore nuclear diplomacy and strengthen international nuclear arms controls," concludes SIPRI director Dan Smith alarmingly. 

"Nuclear weapons are anti-Islamic" 

It does not feature in the Swedish institute's report, but it is the angular concern driving geopolitics in the Middle East. Iran could be the tenth member of that club of nuclear powers, although the ayatollah regime itself is hesitant to do so. "Nuclear weapons are used for mass murder and we are against such killings. Because of our Islamic principles, we have no intention of moving towards such weapons. Otherwise, if we wanted to do so, they would not be able to prevent it," defends the leader of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei. 

It is against religion, but they need a small arsenal to ensure their security in the region, mainly against Israel. According to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports, Tehran has enriched uranium to around 83.7 per cent, very close to the 90% needed to make a nuclear bomb. If they could make one, the ayatollahs would have crossed all the red lines in Iran's nuclear programme.

PHOTO/Oficina del Líder Supremo iraní/WANA (Agencia de Noticias de Asia Occidental) vía REUTERS - El líder supremo iraní, el ayatolá Ali Jamenei, observa una maqueta de una instalación nuclear en Teherán, Irán, el 11 de junio de 2023
PHOTO/Iranian Supreme Leader's Office/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS - Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei looks at a model of a nuclear facility in Tehran, Iran June 11, 2023

Once again, diplomatic efforts are intensifying as events accelerate. Following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, a decision by the Donald Trump administration in 2018, Iran skipped all the commitments made to the West and redoubled all its efforts in its nuclear endeavour. Under that deal, which was indirectly entered into with the White House, Iran's nuclear programme was limited in exchange for the lifting of sanctions against the regime. 

"There is nothing wrong with an agreement, but the infrastructure of the nuclear industry must not be touched," Ali Khamenei said. The conditions are now greater than before, as is the possibility of running aground on lost ground.  

Positive developments 

From the bleak scenario it projects, SIPRI acknowledges some significant progress. The institute notes that over the past year "several milestones in nuclear diplomacy were reached", albeit with an exaggerated pluralism that counted the Iranian nuclear programme in good stead. Outside the case, the institution acknowledged as a step forward the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in January this year, following the necessary ratification by 50 countries.

AFP/OLEKSANDR GIMANOV - Representantes de la diáspora bielorrusa en Ucrania sostienen pancartas en las que se lee Bielorrusia sin armas nucleares, Bielorrusia sin Lukashenko y sin armas nucleares y otras durante una concentración contra el despliegue de armas nucleares rusas en el territorio de su país en Odessa el 8 de mayo de 2023
AFP/OLEKSANDR GIMANOV - Representatives of the Belarusian diaspora in Ukraine hold banners reading Belarus without nuclear weapons

The weight of nuclear uncertainty 

Panic is spreading in the pro-Russian media. Alarmist messages about the use of nuclear weapons deployed in Belarus are taking over the attention of the Western media. The trick of nuclear uncertainty works very well for a Putin who, knowing full well, is repeating the trick.  

For Sergei Karaganov, a former adviser to the Russian president, the Kremlin should step up its nuclear rhetoric - Lukashenko-style - to force Western countries to "back down" in Ukraine. Step accomplished, so far. But if that option fails and the West ignores Russian warnings, Moscow will have no choice but to carry out nuclear strikes in European cities.

At the same time, the US daily The Wall Street Journal reports that Joe Biden's administration is considering approving the shipment of depleted uranium to Ukraine. Decisions are being taken against the clock in an intrepid arms race that sees the first steps being taken in the most immediate temperature rise: the Ukrainian counter-offensive. A key step in the invasion that puts a cornered Vladimir Putin on the ropes.