Russia has completed its delivery of so-called tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, according to Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. It marks a furthers escalation in the nuclear threat as Minsk hosts nuclear weapons on its soil for the first time in almost 40 years.
Speaking on 25 December, Lukashenko said the shipments had been completed in October. However, he didn’t give any additional details on how many warheads had been delivered or where they are deployed. It follows Vladimir Putin’s announcement in March 2023 that Russia would send nuclear weapons to Belarus – likening it to NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangement.
Lukashenko has previously said that he wouldn’t hesitate to ask Putin to order their use in the event Belarus faced an act of aggression. Belarus borders three NATO members – Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia – all of whom have been supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia. Belarus, meanwhile, has been an ally to Russia and provided a staging ground for the February 2022 invasion.
Despite this, an online survey of Belarusians by the Chatham House think tank in March found that 74 percent of respondents were opposed to the stationing of nuclear weapons in their country.
At the time of gaining independence in 1991, Belarus held 81 road-mobile SS-25s on its territory across three missile bases, and a substantial number of nuclear weapons, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative. These were transferred to Russia between 1993 and 1996 – as part of negotiations that also saw Kazakhstan and Ukraine hand over control of former Soviet nuclear weapons to Moscow.
According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), the latest Russian nuclear weapons could be stationed at military sites near Asipovichy in central Belarus. The area is believed to be the Belarusian brigade base for Iskander launchers and could have the required missile storage facilities. Satellite imagery has shown construction works which could indicate upgrades. However, FAS maintains that this is speculation and notes that the sites have less perimeter security than usual Russian missile storage sites.
Belarus may also have access to air-launched nuclear weapons. Putin and Lukashenko have previously mentioned a nuclear upgrade of Belarusian Su-25 aircraft – and Lida Air Base and Baranavichy Air Base have been suggested as potential locations for a nuclear mission. However, as with Asipovichy, FAS is unable to confirm that either site has a nuclear mission at present.
NATO too has been upgrading its nuclear infrastructure as part of preparations for the deployment of the new US B61-12 guided nuclear bomb to Europe. Dropped by the F-35 fighter jet, US airbases in Germany, Belgium, Italy, Turkey, and the Netherlands could all host these weapons. RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk is also undergoing upgrades to prepare the base for a potential US nuclear mission in Britain – the first since 2008.
CND General Secretary Kate Hudson said:
“The completion of Russia’s nuclear deployment to Belarus ensures that the nuclear threat in 2024 will be higher than in 2023 and must be condemned as extremely irresponsible. Nuclear weapons will not keep Belarusians safe but will ensure the country is a target in the event of any nuclear war between NATO and Russia. As with the stationing of US nuclear weapons in Britain, we must oppose the location of nuclear weapons in all third countries and stand with those who are against them. In the year ahead, we must do all we can to promote peace and dialogue and oppose the possession of nuclear weapons by all states.”
Image credit: Kremlin.ru