Russia is deploying nuclear weapons in Belarus. NATO shouldn’t take the bait

By Nikolai N. Sokov | April 24, 2023

A launch of a Russian Iskander-M nuclear-capable mobile short-range ballistic missile system in 2018. Belarusian crews reportedly completed personnel training on Iskanders in early March 2023. (Photo credit: Russian Ministry of Defence CC BY 4.0)

In June 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a new policy of Russia deploying some of its nuclear weapons in Belarus. The nuclear sharing arrangements between Russia and Belarus represent a fundamental change in Russian nuclear policy and the European security landscape. But as is usual with changes in Russian defense policy, the story developed slowly and has been full of unnecessary intrigue with important information revealed in small portions.

More than nine months after the initial announcement, the Russia-Belarus nuclear sharing is still very much incomplete; further developments may depend on the still uncertain evolution of the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine as well as any future changes in the scope and scale of Western assistance to Ukraine. But despite the many uncertainties, some key implications of Russia’s new policy of nuclear sharing can already be anticipated—especially as regard to its consequences for strategic stability.

Slow developments, false intrigue. The initial formal request for deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus came in late 2021 from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, several months before the invasion of Ukraine. But Moscow refrained at the time. Such a step would have contradicted two long-standing nuclear policies of Russia: First, Moscow’s insistence that all nuclear weapons must be deployed within national territories (meaning that the United States should return its B-61 nuclear gravity bombs from Europe) and, second, that NATO’s nuclear sharing violates the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).[1]

Everything changed after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The failure of the original plan to win the war in perhaps two or three weeks, the subsequent stalemate at the frontlines, and the growing US and European assistance to Ukraine prompted Moscow to change its position vis-a-vis nuclear sharing. In June 2022, during a Russian-Belarusian summit meeting in Moscow, Putin announced that Russia would help Belarus to convert its Su-25 aircraft to carry nuclear weapons, train their crews, and transfer 500-kilometer (km) range dual-capable Iskander missiles to Belarus.

As the practical implementation of this agreement continued to develop, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova revealed in December 2022 that, at the moment, there was no intention to transfer nuclear weapons to Belarus or to deploy them on delivery vehicles. The latter declaration appears revelatory of an important aspect of the arrangement: At an early stage of the process, Russia intended to limit itself to laying the groundwork for the possible transfer of nuclear weapons to the territory of Belarus while the transfer itself would require a separate decision and was not preordained. This point was further re-emphasized during the hearings in the UN Security Council at the end of March 2023, when the Belarusian Permanent Representative to the UN, Valentin Rybakov, talked about “possible—I emphasize, possible—deployment” of Russian nuclear weapons in his country.

Around the same time, Putin said in a TV interview that nuclear weapons deployed in Belarus would be fully controlled by Russia while Belarusian armed forces would control the delivery vehicles. In other words, he confirmed what was already anticipated as a nuclear sharing arrangement fully mirroring NATO’s.

In their joint statement adopted during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Moscow last month, both countries declared that nuclear-armed countries “should not deploy nuclear weapons outside national territories and should withdraw all nuclear weapons deployed abroad.” Only a few days after the Russian-Chinese summit, Putin announced the creation of infrastructure for nuclear weapons in Belarus, making some Western commentators hypothesize that Russia’s decision would antagonize its relations with China.

But it’s hardly the case. China—like virtually everyone on Earth—knew about Russian plans at least since the summer of 2022. There was no intrigue. And Russia’s repeated declarations that the transfer of nuclear weapons was not imminent certainly helped address China’s concerns, if any.

A Belarusian pilot standing in front of a Su-25 aircraft in a Belarusian TV news clip. The location of the air base for nuclear-capable Su-25 has not been publicly disclosed but experts now point at the Lida base in western Belarus. (Belarusian Ministry of Defense, via Federation of American Scientists)

Uncertainties. Unlike NATO’s nuclear sharing, which is built around nearly 100 B-61 gravity bombs, the Russia-Belarus one will involve a mix of gravity bombs and ground-launched missiles.

The aerial component of the nuclear sharing will include 10 Soviet-era Belarusian Su-25 aircraft, suggesting that the number of nuclear bombs will also be small, perhaps the same 10. The choice of rather old close-support aircraft may seem strange, especially as the more modern Su-30SM—which Russia sold to Belarus—would appear a more logical choice from a military standpoint. But, as Putin explained, the legacy Soviet Su-25s were originally produced with nuclear capability, which made conversion easier. According to prominent Russian military expert Dmitry Stefanovich, it was simply faster and cheaper to restore the original capability of old aircraft than to convert the newer ones. The completion of the Su-25’s conversion was announced at the Putin-Lukashenko summit meeting in December 2022 and on April 14, 2023, the Russian and Belarusian Defense Ministries announced that Belarusian pilots had completed training for the nuclear mission.

The location of the base for nuclear-capable Su-25 has not been publicly disclosed. Russian ambassador to Belarus Boris Gryzlov, however, revealed that they would be deployed “close to the Western border of the Union State” (consisting of Russia and Belarus), which may hint at the base at Lida in western Belarus—a logical choice given the relatively limited combat range of the Su-25 aircraft. An old Soviet nuclear weapons storage facility also is located nearby. The Federation of American Scientists has subsequently confirmed Lida as the nuclear Su-25 base using geolocation of a Belarusian TV news clip showing a pilot of a Belarusian nuclear-capable aircraft.

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The number of Russian Iskander (SS-26) short-range missiles sold to Belarus is unknown, but Alexander Lukashenko initially requested “several wings” (divizion) of Iskanders, which may mean at least one brigade. A standard Iskander brigade consists of three wings with four launchers each; each launcher carries two missiles. (In 2019, Russia began expanding brigades to 16 launchers, but it is unclear whether Belarus has received the new, strengthened brigade.) The force likely represents a mix of ballistic and cruise missiles, 24 or 32 missiles in one salvo; each brigade normally has at least one spare complement of missiles.

In December 2022, Vladimir Putin announced that the Iskanders in Belarus were already on combat duty and in March 2023 that training of Belarusian crews would begin in early April. The latter probably involves training for handling nuclear warheads as basic training had been completed earlier: On February 1, 2023, the Belarusian Ministry of Defense reported that its personnel completely took over operation of Iskanders and in early March they performed training launches—a procedure that usually completes personnel training.

The location of Belarusian Iskanders intended for nuclear mission has also not been revealed. Lukashenko stated on March 31 that he had recently ordered rejuvenation of nuclear warheads storage sites at former bases of the Topol (SS-25) intercontinental ballistic missiles. This suggests that deployment may be planned at one of three former bases in Lida, Postavy, or Mozyr. The latter is too far from the border, which narrows the likely choice down to Lida (the site of the 49th Missile Division) or Postavy (the site of the 32nd Missile Division).

The location of the storage site(s) for the nuclear warheads is perhaps the greatest of all uncertainties surrounding the Russia-Belarus nuclear sharing. At the end of March, Putin announced that storage would be completed by July 1, 2023. It is not clear whether there will be one storage site or several of them. This will largely depend on whether Su-25 aircraft and Iskanders are deployed in the vicinity or at a distance from each other. Rejuvenation of “nuclear bunkers” for warheads, like at the Lida base, may take considerable time, not just for construction work, but also to install all the obligatory security systems. In contrast, former Topol (SS-25) bases used light storage facilities, which may require less work to rejuvenate.

Strategic consequences. The impact of Russia’s decision to institute nuclear sharing with Belarus will have wide-ranging consequences.

For the first time since the end of the Cold War, short-range, tactical nuclear weapons have acquired a distinct military mission. The concept of limited nuclear use was introduced in Russia’s 2000 Military Doctrine: Much like NATO’s flexible deterrence of the 1960s, it was supposed to deter the superior conventional capability of NATO.[2] For over two decades, however, the mission was assigned to long-range weapon systems, either those that classify as strategic or those with intermediate (theater) range.[3] Short-range weapons simply did not have a place in that strategy—until now.

In application of nuclear deterrence theory, nuclear weapons are used for signaling, not for their actual use, even though the presence of capability and the demonstrated willingness to use them constitute an important component of signaling. Such signals are invoked to affect the decision-making on the other side by radically increasing the costs of the courses of action, which the signaling side wants to deter. In its war against Ukraine, Russia has “utilized” its nuclear weapons in the offensive deterrence mode—that is, as a cover for its unprovoked aggression rather than for the purposes of defensive deterrence (prevention of aggression by others) against what is proscribed in all official documents—from the national security concepts to the military doctrines. Naturally, the contradiction between declared and actual policy casts doubt on all previous and future Russian nuclear doctrines.

Nuclear sharing with Belarus is, to say the least, not the first instance when Moscow invoked nuclear weapons. But it is by far the most serious of those instances. The war began, in fact, with implicit references to nuclear weapons: Already on February 24, 2022—the first day of the invasion—Vladimir Putin threatened “those who stand in our way” with consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history.” A few days later he ordered the enhanced alert status for Russian strategic forces. This turned out to apply only to command and communication systems, but initially, it caused great concern—even panic—in the West. The next reference to nuclear weapons came in September 2022 when, following a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive and announcement of “partial” mobilization in Russia, Putin threatened again to “make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.”

Compared to these vague statements, the Russia-Belarus nuclear sharing—which involves preparation for deployment of nuclear weapons and may eventually entail the actual transfer of Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus—is by far the boldest move by Russia because it comes supported with new capability. Moreover, if the delivery systems and warheads under these arrangements are deployed near the western border of Belarus where they are highly vulnerable, the only conceivable mode for them is to strike first. The number of nuclear weapons involved may be relatively small—perhaps only about one-third of the entire inventory of B-61 bombs—but ready to use.

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The message is undoubtedly addressed to the West; nuclear use against Ukraine has never even indirectly featured in any Russian statements.

Moscow regards the United States and Europe as parties to the war; Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared that Russia and the United States are in a “hot phase” of war. These statements elevate the Russian war against Ukraine to the category of a “regional conflict” according to the 2000 and subsequent Russian Military Doctrines—a category that allows for limited use of nuclear weapons.

Given the short ranges of delivery vehicles intended for nuclear mission in Belarus, the nuclear signal appears clearly aimed at Poland, a full member of NATO. That country has taken arguably the most proactive position on assistance to Ukraine, leading Europe in enhancing assistance. For instance, Poland played a pivotal role in convincing European countries to deliver tanks to Ukraine and organizing their shipments. Poland has also taken the most radical political stance toward Russia: Its leaders openly talk about the need for regime change in Russia—a position that is fundamentally different from that of the United States. Poland also pursues massive rearmament and pushes for a greater US military presence in its territory to deter Russia; it has also been quite vocally in favor of possible movement of some B-61 nuclear bombs from current basing countries to Polish territory. Moscow even suspects that Poland may send troops to Ukraine—with or without NATO consent.

The seriousness of the new signal does not mean that nuclear use in Europe is an immediate threat. First, it is reserved for extreme circumstances, such as a major defeat of Russia, which would put the regime at risk. Second, it would only result from a relatively lengthy process of escalation. Generally, escalations tend to accelerate over time, but were NATO to join that process by responding in kind, acceleration may become exponential very quickly. Arguably, the process of escalation may have already started with Putin’s decision to prepare infrastructure for transfer of nuclear weapons to Belarus. What could come next are possible confrontations in the air or at sea with NATO aircraft or ships (such as the decision to down the US Reaper unmanned aircraft over the Black Sea on March 14, 2023); limited use of conventional weapons (such as a strike at transfer points between Poland and Ukraine), etc. The last step before nuclear use would be an underground nuclear test—and Putin has mentioned it in his address to the Russian parliament in February 2023.

Do not respond in kind. Recent nuclear signaling and actions by Russia are clearly a step on the escalation ladder. An immediately apparent NATO response to the establishment of Russian nuclear infrastructure in Belarus would be to move some B-61 bombs to Poland. Such a response would have several advantages. It could demonstrate to Russia that NATO is not scared and is ready to match any step of Russia’s escalation. It would also make the B-61s more usable against Russia, therefore more credible as a deterrence tool.

The wisdom of a symmetrical, tit-for-tat response to Russia’s escalatory steps is questionable, however.

Russia can ill-afford a protracted war: Its resources are nowhere near what the West could provide to Ukraine if the war continues into next year. Consequently, escalation—to the brink of nuclear use, if necessary—appears a rational behavior for Moscow. In a hypothetical extreme case, NATO might be forced to conclude that the prospect of nuclear use against its territory is an excessively high price for the victory of Ukraine and step down. This means that by moving B-61s to Poland, NATO would be effectively playing the Russian game and accelerate the escalation.

Instead, NATO would be better off to continue the current policy and rally international opinion against Russia’s possible nuclear use. As Allies’ defense production continues to ramp up, assistance to Ukraine will become more efficient and consequential. Escalation may be tempting, but it is both unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

Notes

[1] Contrary to Moscow’s claim, NATO’s policy of nuclear sharing does not violate the NPT because US allies do not have control of the nuclear weapons deployed in their territory. In fact, the Soviet Union had its own version of nuclear sharing during the Cold War. Allies, however, do possess nuclear capable delivery vehicles and train to use nuclear weapons in a war. Such activities can be classified as bad-faith implementation of the NPT, although not a strict violation.

[2] For an analysis of nuclear-policy-related elements of the 2000 National Security Concept and Military Doctrine, see Nikolai Sokov, “Russia’s New National Security Concept: The Nuclear Angle, January 2000,” https://nonproliferation.org/russias-new-national-security-concept-the-nuclear-angle/ and “Russia’s 2000 Nuclear Doctrine,” https://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/russias-2000-military-doctrine/.

[3] A clarification of the 2000 Doctrine, issued in 2003, emphasized that the United States and its allies had demonstrated the pattern of using long-range strike weapons and, accordingly, Russia needed capability to strike deep into the adversary’s territory beyond the immediate area of conflict. “Aktualnye Zadachi Razvitiya Vooruzhennykh Sil RF,” [Urgent Tasks of the Development of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation], Krasnaya Zvezda, October 11, 2003, http://old.redstar.ru/2003/10/11_10/3_01.html


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cornelius schulman
cornelius schulman
9 months ago

These weapons have to be coded to the Russian activation and arming system? It is not as if they can just be used, Russia must arm them, Putin has the finger on the button. I see no mention of this, are you implying that anyone can use these without any special process? 

Robert healion
Robert healion
9 months ago

Russia was eager to join the western alliance as a trading partner but that damm military industrial complex need some one to arm against. Well what can you expect from war but more war. And a nuclear winter unless some intelligence enters the debate.

Cognoscenti
9 months ago

Putin is in a corner. Losing in Ukraine represents an existential threat to him. He is weighing the risk of tac-nuking Kyiv. ALT he will create some incident around Zaporizhia with a big leak and blame Ukraine. The probability of this is moderate to high. Not low. Unfortunately, the best outcome for the world is a draw in Ukraine. Then a demilitarized zone, UN, etc. Yes, that is a terrible thing to say in light of the horrendous carnage in Ukraine … but it is where we are right now. The worst outcome in Ukraine for the world is if… Read more »