Putin’s Nuclear Sabre-Rattling In Belarus Triggers WWIII Warning – OpEd
By Thalif Deen
As Russian nuclear threats keep escalating, following the invasion of Ukraine 14 months ago, President Vladimir Putin has issued a new warning on March 26: that he plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, a close political, economic and military ally of Moscow.
“The United States has been doing this for decades,” Putin asserted, insisting that his plans were no different from the American practice of positioning nuclear weapons in allied countries.
The President of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, while endorsing the proposal, warned of a “third world war looming on the horizon with nuclear fires”.
Dr Rebecca Johnson, nuclear treaty expert and first president of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), told IDN this sabre-rattling by Putin and Lukashenko is dangerous and foolish.
It is meant to challenge NATO, but only emulates NATO’s provocative nuclear sharing arrangements with Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey, she said.
“If the threats to share nuclear weapons with Belarus are actually implemented, they will increase the risks that nuclear weapons could be used in this war, whether through murderous intent, accident or miscommunication.”
Given the brutal war being waged against Ukraine, if Russia puts some of its nuclear weapons into Belarus, how will Putin and Lukashenko take responsibility for what happens next? she asked.
“Putin has already miscalculated in launching this war and underestimating Ukrainian resistance. Nuclear deterrence has already failed. He has already been indicted for war crimes.”
What he is doing now could cause genocide, Dr Johnson declared.
Hans M. Kristensen, Director, Nuclear Information Project, Federation of American Scientists, and Associate Senior Fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told IDN the United States has deployed nuclear weapons in a small number of European countries since the 1950s, but President Putin’s statements about deploying nuclear weapons in Belarus would be a new arrangement.
Until last year, the Belarusian constitution prohibited nuclear weapons in Belarus, but the constitution was changed to allow this, he pointed out.
Even so, Russian nuclear deployment in Belarus would contradict the joint Russia-China statement from February that “All nuclear-weapon states should refrain from deploying nuclear weapons abroad…”
Asked about President Putin’s proposal to station nuclear weapons in Belarus, UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters March 27: “Well, we’ve seen those press reports, and I can tell you that obviously, we’re concerned about the general state of tensions around nuclear weapons that we’re seeing recently, which is very concerning. And this also serves as a reminder for every Member State to uphold its responsibility under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)”.
Dujarric also said current nuclear risks are alarmingly high. “And all actions that could lead to miscalculation or escalation with catastrophic consequences must be avoided.”
All nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapon states, he said, must strictly adhere to the commitments and obligations they’ve assumed under the NPT.
Meanwhile, there are reports that Ukraine is planning to call for a meeting of the UN Security Council—currently presided over by Russia for the month of April—but it’s a decision to be made by the Council itself.
Elaborating further, Dr Johnson said military boffins like to bandy around terms like ‘tactical nuclear weapon’ as if these aren’t quite so bad. Don’t be deceived—that’s just a word for short range, typically portable.
“That means more vulnerable nuclear bombs, not ones that are less dangerous. The bombs in NATO bases that are described as tactical are designed to be far bigger in explosive power that the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945,” she pointed out.
Dr Johnson said: “There’s no such thing as a tactical use of nuclear weapons. Once the taboo on detonating nuclear weapons is broken, nuclear war will be unleashed. That is an unbearable nightmare to think about, but that’s the brink where humanity now teeters”.
Any use of nuclear weapons, she said, would be strategic in purpose and put populations in terrible danger. The Red Cross has underlined over and over again that there is no humanitarian response service in the world that can handle the carnage and radiation of just one nuclear detonation on a city or ‘battlefield’, which in the Ukraine war seems to mean cluster of town and villages resisting Putin’s invasion.
Back in the 1990s, Ukraine was right to get rid of the Soviet weapons left on its soil and join the NPT; and Russia has been right to call on NATO to stop its nuclear sharing policies and comply in good faith with the NPT and disarmament treaties. Now Putin has reversed Russian policies, and put the Russian, Ukrainian and European peoples in terrible danger, said Dr Johnson.
“The only way to prevent nuclear war and the use of nuclear weapons is by eliminating all nuclear arsenals. Now, before it is too late, Russia, NATO countries, and the other nuclear-armed states need to sign the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and start working to prevent nuclear war.”
Commenting on Putin’s announcement to station nuclear weapons in Belarus, UK Ambassador to the UN James Kariuki’s told the UN Security Council on March 31 Russia’s announcement is “yet another futile attempt at intimidation and coercion”.
“Russia’s nuclear rhetoric is irresponsible. The UK urges Belarus not to enable Russia’s reckless actions. The UK is clear we will continue to support Ukraine. It is Russia who has violated the UN Charter.”
In January 2022, P5 leaders said that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. They also said that “nuclear weapons—for as long as they continue to exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.”
Despite this commitment, since the beginning of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, President Putin has used irresponsible nuclear rhetoric, said the British ambassador.
“Let us be clear: No other country has raised the prospect of nuclear use in this conflict. No one is threatening Russia’s sovereignty. It is Russia which has violated the UN Charter by invading another sovereign country,” he said.
“President Putin’s announcement on March 25 is his latest attempt to intimidate and coerce. This has not worked and will not work. We will continue to support Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself.”
“We have heard President Putin’s claim that the trigger for this announcement is the UK supplying depleted uranium munitions to Ukraine alongside Challenger tanks, as it defends itself in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter.”
Russia is well aware that this is conventional ammunition—not nuclear munitions. This is yet another example of them deliberately trying to mislead, the British envoy said.
“We welcome President Xi’s call for the international community to ‘jointly oppose the use of, or threats to use, nuclear weapons,’ and I listen closely to our Chinese colleague today. We also note the Chinese and Russian joint statement that nuclear weapons should not be deployed abroad.”
Despite these statements of intent, Russia has steadily undermined the arms control architecture underpinning our collective security. Russia’s persistent violations of the INF Treaty resulted in the Treaty’s collapse in 2019. This year, Russia suspended its participation in New START, he noted.
“President Lukashenko has made no secret of his wish to see Russia base nuclear weapons in Belarus. We urge him to stop enabling Russia’s reckless and escalatory actions. We will stand firm in our support to the people of Ukraine, and call on Russia to de-escalate; it should start by ceasing its illegal and unprovoked invasion,” the ambassador declared.
Thalif Deen, Senior Editor & Director, UN Bureau, Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency has been covering the United Nations since the late 1970s. Beginning with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, he has covered virtually every major U.N. conference: on population, human rights, the environment, sustainable development, food security, humanitarian aid, arms control and nuclear disarmament.