Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that he has moved his first batch of nuclear tactical weapons into Belarus last month, has led to widespread speculation as to its implications and consequences. But how credible is this claim? Or is this the continued nuclear saber-rattling by Putin?
In a bygone era, Belarus has had a nuclear track record of 81 single warhead missiles stationed on its territory after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In May 1992, Belarus acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), while the weapons were all transferred to post-Cold War Russia by 1996.
Ariana N. Smith, Executive Director, Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and Director, UN Office of IALANA, told IDN Russia’s stationing of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus “is a disturbing development in the ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine”.
“Nuclear sharing” agreements, which generally involve the deployment of a nuclear-armed state’s weaponry in a non-nuclear weapon state with procedures for delivery of the weapons by the non-nuclear state in a time of war, are incompatible with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, she pointed out.
“The Russia-Belarus arrangement dangerously escalates an already violent, illegal war rife with nuclear risk, placing the world in peril.”
Both Russia and Belarus are parties to the NPT—as a nuclear weapon state (NWS) and non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS), respectively—bound by its provisions.
Article I obligates the treaty-recognized NWS “not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons … or control over such weapons directly, or indirectly”.
It further requires the nuclear-armed states “not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non- nuclear-weapon State to … acquire nuclear weapons … or control over such weapons”.
And Article II places a parallel obligation on NNWS, prohibiting them from receiving any such transfer or assistance.
Here, Russia’s stationing weapons in Belarus, and Belarus’s accepting them, violates international law, said Smith.
“It also presents an unacceptable threat to the already weakened state of global arms control and further increases the risk of nuclear weapons use in the conflict”, she declared.
Smith said Russia and the United States/NATO are all attempting to use “deterrence” to strengthen their own positions, misguidedly claiming that it may prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction.
For example, Belarusian President Lukashenko explicitly referred to Russian tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory as a “deterrent against a potential aggressor“, using similar language that Russia has used in this context.
Alyn Ware, co-Founder and International Coordinator of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (PNND) told IDN: “Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Putin has used a variety of nuclear threats to try to coerce Europe and the US into accepting the illegal invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Ukrainian territory”.
To date, he argued, President Putin has failed in this coercion. “The West has remained strong and united against Russia’s aggression and against Russia’s commission of war crimes in Ukraine.”
President Putin’s deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus will not succeed in coercing the West to stop their support for Ukraine, he said.
“Although it appears that Putin’s actions are coercive and not an indication of an intent to actually use nuclear weapons in the war, the threatening statements and actions elevate the risk of nuclear weapons being used through further conflict escalation, miscalculation, misunderstanding or accident,” he warned.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in August 2022 that “We have been extraordinarily lucky so far. But luck is not a strategy. Nor is it a shield from geopolitical tensions boiling over into nuclear conflict”.
Today, said Guterres, humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.” (See Nuclear risks extreme says UN Secretary-General to NPT Review Conference.
According to a June 16 report in The Hill, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration is closely monitoring Russia’s claims that it’s stored a tactical nuclear weapon in Belarus, but Washington has “no reason to adjust” its own nuclear posture.
Blinken was reacting to Putin’s statement that Moscow has sent the first of several nuclear weapons to its ally Belarus, with the rest to be delivered by the end of summer.
Responding to questions after a speech at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, the BBC reported June 17 that, Putin said the move was about “containment” and to remind anyone “thinking of inflicting a strategic defeat on us”.
When asked about the possibility of using those weapons, he replied: “Why should we threaten the whole world? I have already said that the use of extreme measures is possible in case there is a danger to Russian statehood.”
Tactical nuclear weapons are small nuclear warheads and delivery systems intended for use on the battlefield, or for a limited strike. They are designed to destroy enemy targets in a specific area without causing widespread radioactive fallout.
The smallest tactical nuclear weapons can be one kiloton or less (producing the equivalent to a thousand tonnes of the explosive TNT). The largest ones can be as big as 100 kilotons. By comparison, the atomic bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 was 15 kilotons, according to the BBC report.
Ware also referred to the G20 Leaders who at the Bali Summit in November 2022 agreed that “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” (See Breakthrough at the G20 Summit: Leaders of nuclear weapon and allied states affirm the inadmissibility of nuclear weapons threat or use).
“However, this agreement is shaky, as we saw at the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, where the leaders backtracked from the Bali Declaration (See G7 Hiroshima Summit backtracks on norm against nuclear weapons”, he said.
This is why it is so important to consolidate the norm against nuclear weapons threat or use and turn it into accepted international law. NoFirstUse Global is pressing for this with Nuclear Taboo: From Norm to Law, A Declaration of Public Conscience which was launched in April and presented to the G7 Summit in May.
It will also be presented to the NPT Prep Com in August, G20 Summit in India in September and to the UN General Assembly in October. The Declaration of Public Conscience was the brainchild of Aaron Tovish. John Hallam will be presenting it to the NPT Prep Com in August.
Elaborating further, Ariana Smith said Senators Graham and Blumenthal recently introduced a resolution that would deem a nuclear detonation by Russia in Ukraine an attack on NATO, invoking war with the US, and threatened “total obliteration” of Russian forces should Russia use a nuclear weapon or cause a nuclear disaster at Zaporizhia.
“The language of deterrence and accompanying action, though, amounts to an existentially threatening game of chicken. All of this heightens the risk of not only an intentional nuclear attack, but also nuclear weapon use due to miscalculation or misinterpretation,” she argued.
Part of the stated Russian defense of its arrangement with Belarus points to the alleged precedent set by the United States’ nuclear sharing agreements with certain NATO states.
While the status of US sharing with NATO states predates the entry into force of the NPT, both US-NATO and Russia-Belarus nuclear sharing threatens further proliferation and should be ended as soon as practicable, declared Smith.
Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Vancouver July 4 adopted the following text on nuclear risk reduction and disarmament, which will be included in the Vancouver Declaration.
“The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly calls for the immediate end of nuclear threat escalation fueled by the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine and encourages all participating states to redouble international efforts to achieve the global elimination of nuclear weapons within a timebound framework, including by negotiating a comprehensive nuclear weapons convention or framework of agreements as recommended in the final document of the eight Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or by signing and ratifying the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.”
The participants included over 200 parliamentarians from North America, Europe and Central Asia, including a number of members from Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (PNND).