The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Belarus should not be the Kremlin’s nuclear sandbox

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko during a meeting outside Moscow on Feb. 17. (Sputnik/Vladimir Astapkovich/Kremlin via Reuters)
3 min

President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russia will deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus marks yet another worrisome turn. The cataclysmic power of nuclear weapons created a taboo against reckless threats during the Cold War. Mr. Putin’s rhetoric is shredding that restraint once again.

How serious he is remains unclear. Mr. Putin told Rossiya 24 television on March 25 that Russia had already given Belarus 10 nuclear-capable planes, delivered a nuclear-capable Iskander missile complex, would begin training crews on April 3 and would complete construction of a special storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus by July 1. However, there is no known construction site for such a complex warehouse in Belarus, and it seems unlikely one could be finished in so short a time.

But the latest threat is worrisome. If the weapons are moved to Belarus, they will be closer to the war in Ukraine. By any rational measure, such horrific weapons have no battlefield utility in this conflict and would trigger a massive response from the international community, isolating Russia and Mr. Putin still further. There is the ever-present danger of miscalculation and misperception when nuclear weapons are deployed. Already the arms control agreements that limited long-range or strategic nuclear forces are weakening.

Tactical or short-range nuclear weapons, many of them built during the Cold War standoff, were pulled back to Russia from Warsaw Pact countries, and other Soviet republics, in the early 1990s. Russia is believed to hold about 2,000 such weapons in central storage warehouses.

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The United States has about 100 nuclear gravity bombs deployed in five NATO countries. Russia has long objected to these weapons, and did so as recently as Mr. Putin’s meeting with China’s leader Xi Jinping on March 21, when the two leaders issued a joint statement declaring that nations should refrain from deploying nuclear weapons abroad. However, nothing prevents Mr. Putin from the Belarus deployment. An arms control treaty has never covered tactical nuclear weapons.

Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarus autocrat, has become Mr. Putin’s satrap, and the arrival of nuclear warheads would only subordinate Belarus further to Russia. By lending Belarus airspace and ground facilities to the ruinous war against Ukraine — some of the missiles crashing into Ukraine apartments are launched from Belarus or planes stationed there — Mr. Lukashenko is complicit in Mr. Putin’s war crimes. Meanwhile, in Belarus, Mr. Lukashenko has been turning the screws ever tighter on civil society, arresting lawyers and trade unionists, among others.

The democratic opposition to Mr. Lukashenko, led in exile by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the legitimate victor of the 2020 presidential election, has opposed stationing nuclear warheads in Belarus and demanded that Russian troops be ejected from the country. On a recent visit to the United States, Ms. Tikhanovskaya, who has spoken out frequently in defense of Ukraine, reaffirmed a vision of Belarus as independent and free. She told us that the West must not ease up the sanctions on Belarus at this pivotal moment. On March 24, the United States imposed new ones, including restrictions on Mr. Lukashenko’s luxury Boeing 737 presidential aircraft, used by him and his family for jet-setting vacations. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) has pressed the Biden administration to fill the post of special envoy to the democratic movement of Belarus. Hopefully, this will happen soon. Belarus needs all the help it can get in the struggle to be free of a Kremlin-owned dictatorship that is putting it at the front lines of the war in Ukraine.

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