Right after Xi Jinping left Moscow, Putin talked about the deployment of nuclear missiles in Belarus. The US shrugged, but China warned against the plans. The Russian newssite Meduza spoke to nuclear policy expert Maxim Starchak about Putin's latest escalation. Should we expect reciprocal steps from Washington and its allies, and does the presence of tactical nuclear weapons change the status of Belarus itself?
Iskander ballistic missile (picture Vitaly Kuzmin, Wikipedia)
On March 25, state-run television network Russia 24 aired an interview with Vladimir Putin by All-Russia Radio and Television Broadcasting Company correspondent Pavel Zarubin. In the interview, the Russian president spoke in detail for the first time about how he plans to respond to Western countries supplying Ukraine with weapons. The most striking part of the interview was Putin’s announcement that the Kremlin has decided to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.
Additionally, he said that 10 Belarusian air force planes have already been updated to carry nuclear weapons. Russia has also given Belarus an Iskander ballistic missile system capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons and plans to finish construction on a nuclear storage facility in the country by July 1.
So far, the West has reacted to this attempt at escalation with restraint: U.S. authorities said they 'have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture nor any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon.'
Why did Vladimir Putin decide to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus?
'I think it’s just the latest attempt to draw U.S. attention, to increase tension, to escalate, to put on the line what Moscow believes is important to the U.S. and would force them to the negotiating table. It’s the same with the suspension of the START treaty [the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty between Russia and the U.S.]. Moscow considers it an important case for the U.S. Moscow set a change in U.S. policy towards Ukraine as a condition for returning to [participation in START].
'With Belarus, Moscow is playing another card, suggesting that tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus could also be an occasion to negotiate, in order to convince the U.S. to accept Russia’s conquests in Ukraine as non-negotiable, [and suggesting that] otherwise there will be no resolution to the nuclear questions which are so important to the U.S.'
What accounts for Washington’s seemingly calm reaction to this attempt at escalation?
'The U.S. reaction indicates that they’re not going to play Putin’s games. Just like after the build-up of Russian forces in February 2022. Putin introduces nuclear power as a factor in the war with Ukraine in hopes that it will draw the U.S.’s attention, but nothing happens. I think this is the correct policy, [that] the U.S. is not responding and doesn’t plan to change its nuclear readiness. That is, they refused to join the game with Moscow. That means the nuclear factor of this conflict has not formed at this point. It’s not Cuban Missile Crisis 2.0.'
'The U.S. reaction indicates that they’re not going to play Putin’s games'
Does that mean we shouldn’t expect any answer from Western countries? Does Putin’s decision change the balance of power in Europe?
'[Most likely, no, because] the presence of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus is not news to professionals. In February 2022, Belarus introduced an amendment to the national constitution whereby it ceased to be a neutral and non-nuclear state. In June, Putin reported that he was prepared to send Belarus an Iskander ballistic missile system and Su-25 military aircraft converted for nuclear missions. By the end of the year, these issues had already been resolved. Apart from that, Belarus has already received two S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems from Russia. They’ve gotten Su-30 fighter jets and a Protivnik-GE air defense radar. In other words, everything is ready for Belarus to have a secure zone for weapons, some of which may be nuclear.
'So we realized last year that nuclear weapons would appear in Belarus. Yesterday, it was officially confirmed.'
China warns against proliferation
Right after Putin's announcements on Iskanders for Belarus Mao Ning, China's foreign ministry spokesperson reminded him of Russia's commitment to non-proliferation. 'In January last year, the leaders of the five nuclear-weapon states issued a joint statement noting that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, and stressed that war between nuclear-weapon states should be avoided and strategic risks reduced,' Mao Ning said at a regular press briefing.
'Under the current circumstances, all sides should focus on diplomatic efforts for a peaceful settlement of the Ukraine crisis and work together for de-escalation,' said Mao.
In their joint statement of 21 Marc 2023 Xi and Putin in Moscow stressed again that 'all nuclear-weapon states should refrain from deploying nuclear weapons abroad and withdraw nuclear weapons deployed abroad.' They reaffirmed their commitment to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Logically some Russian newspapers conclude that Putin's announcement means that Russia and Belarus have practically become one country, as BBC-correspondent Steve Rosenberg notices in his press review.
Xi's visit to Moscow might have been presented more smoothly than it was, argues Russian economist Vladislav Inozemtsev for Riddle Russia. He sees no proof of a quasi-feudal relationship, but rather 'things will boil down to an unequal economic partnership and occasional political cooperation, very far from a genuine alliance'.
Cracks of irritation appeared. With Xi still in Moscow, China announced a top meeting with representatives of Central-Asian republics. For Putin the ex-Soviet republics are part and parcel of Russia's 'sphere of influence', but China sees them as partners in their Silk Road Economic Partnership. Xi can profite from Putin's loss of influence, but crucial shipment of Chinese arms to Russia so far have not materialised.
Xi and Putin issued a joint statement in Moscow on 21 March 2023 (picture Kremlin)
'It’s likely that Poland or another country will invite [the U.S. and other Western nuclear powers] to deploy nuclear weapons on their territory [in response to Russia’s decisions to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus]. But it’s unlikely that the U.S. and NATO will respond [in kind]. These discussions were happening last year too, but they remained just discussions.'
Will the presence of tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory make Belarus a nuclear power?
'First of all, it’s important to understand that this doesn’t mean more nuclear weapons in the world — they’re just being moved from Russia to Belarus. And so far, it seems that Moscow will copy its own practice: nuclear warheads are stored separately from carriers, and the carriers exist without the nuclear weapon.
'Russia will evidently retain control over the nuclear weapons [it supplies to Belarus] and will create a special storage facility [in Belarus] for nuclear warheads, which will be fully under the control of the 12th Chief Directorate of the Ministry of Defense [which oversees Russia’s nuclear arsenal]. So they’re not formally violating their non-proliferation regime. Belarus will not become a nuclear power.'
What other aspects of Russian nuclear policy will change based on the decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus?
'Now we can say that Putin is clearly inconsistent. In March, as a result of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow, Russia and China signed a declaration on, among other things, the importance of not deploying nuclear weapons outside of national territory, and about how the U.S. policy of storing tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and the integration of NATO allies into this issue is opposed to the path that Moscow and Beijing have chosen.
'Russia will evidently retain control over the nuclear weapons, so Belarus will not become a nuclear power'
'But a few days passed, and now this. So far, it seems that Putin has deprived himself of the moral trump card of being a defender of the non-proliferation regime, and has received nothing in return.'
Maxim Starchak is an expert on Russian nuclear policy and a researcher at the Center for International and Defense Policy at Queen’s University in Canada. This article was published by Meduza.