Minsk Confirms Deployment of Russian Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Belarus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 72

(Source: President of Belarus)

Executive Summary:

  • At the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly in April, Belarusian officials confirmed that Russian tactical nuclear weapons had been deployed in Belarus.
  • The new military doctrine of Belarus declares the role of Russian TNWs as an essential component of preventive deterrence against unfriendly states.
  • The Belarusian military-political leadership does not have a complete picture of the protocols and procedures for the use of Russian TNWs, and much may depend on personal consultations between Lukashenka and Putin.

The new military doctrine of Belarus, which includes a provision on Russian nuclear weapons, was adopted by the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly (ABPA) during its recent session on April 24 and 25 in Minsk (see EDM, May 2). The text, however, did not clarify the role and status of tactical nuclear weapons (TNW). The document only declared what many already knew in advance (see EDM, March 12). According to the new doctrine, the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory is considered an essential component of deterrence for Minsk. It is also a forced reaction to the failure of Western guarantor countries to comply with the terms of the Memorandum on Security Assurances in connection with the accession of the Republic of Belarus to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, also known as the Budapest Memorandum (Pravo.by, April 25). Last year, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka confirmed that he was discussing the deployment of Russian strategic nuclear weapons in Belarus with President Vladimir Putin and even started to prepare old Soviet launching pads for Topol-M mobile ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (President of Belarus, March 31, 2023; see EDM, April 4, 2023; T.me/modmilby, April 22, 2023). At the ABPA, Lukashenka and Belarusian Minister of Defense Viktor Khrenin confirmed the deployment of Russian TNWs in Belarus. Against the backdrop of Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling during his inauguration speech, the presence of Russian nukes on Belarusian territory has elevated fears of their possible use in Ukraine and/or the wider region (Kremlin.ru, May 7).

Khrenin argued that the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons is not blackmail or intimidation but an opportunity to protect the state and ensure peace for Belarusians. According to him, Belarus was one of the first countries that voluntarily renounced the deployment of nuclear weapons in exchange for international recognition of independence and sovereignty, as well as non-use of economic coercion by outside powers. The defense minister, however, contends that the West broke its promises, and Minsk was forced to react. Khrenin emphasized that deploying TNWs is an effective response to the aggressive policy of unfriendly states and a way to prevent them from escalating the situation around Belarus. He concluded that, after receiving the TNWs, Belarus now has a full arsenal to inflict unacceptable damage on a potential aggressor (Belta, April 25).

On the sidelines of the ABPA, Lukashenka told reporters that the mechanism for using nuclear weapons is not spelled out in the new military doctrine as it is the subject of consultations between him and Putin. He confirmed, however, the existence of a document that “describes the formula for the use of both tactical missile nuclear weapons and nuclear aerial bombs that are set up under the aircraft” (TASS, April 24).

During the ABPA, Lukashenka said that he did not understand the indignation of foreign politicians over the Russian TNWs deployed on Belarusian territory. According to him, these are the same weapons the United States is actively modernizing and storing at the air bases of some European countries, including Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. Lukashenka clarified that there is a difference between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. He claimed that, from the military perspective, TNWs have strike and offensive capabilities, not defensive (YouTube, April 24). Lukashenka failed to mention that, in contrast to the United States and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, Russia has been pre-deploying TNWs to Belarus at the repair and technical bases near NATO’s eastern flank per the Soviet manuals (see EDM, April 30). This could indicate preparations for offensive operations with the use of TNWs. Lukashenka believes that NATO’s first strike would be on Belarus in the event of a military conflict with Russia. He links complaints from Western countries about the deployment of Russian TNWs as evidence of these intentions (President of Belarus, April 25).

Lukashenka believes all this indicates that the West considers Eastern Europe a potential theater of military operations, where the enemy—Russia and Belarus—has already been identified. The Belarusian ruler noted that Moscow has deployed several dozen nuclear warheads in Belarus and that Minsk is determined to oppose any aggressor and inflict unacceptable damage. He emphasized that the West should understand that their capitals are a legitimate target for tactical nuclear strikes in the event of aggression against Belarus. Lukashenka added that he had learned well and mastered the lessons of the Great Patriotic War, especially the initial stage when the Soviet Union tried to appease Nazi Germany and again hinted at the preventive capabilities of TNWs (EDM, March 13). The Russian and Belarusian militaries have already begun preparations for such a strike through command and staff exercises (see EDM, March 13, April 30).

Even so, on May 7, Lukashenka disavowed his statements about the offensive and strike capabilities of Russian TNWs. He once again repeated that the non-strategic nuclear weapons in Belarus are for deterrence and defense. Simultaneously, he stated that the world has never been as close to nuclear war as it is now, noting that the statements of Western politicians (including the French President Emmanuel Macron) have escalated tensions not only in Europe but throughout the world (President of Belarus, May 7).

Lukashenka also announced his intentions to discuss with Putin the joint coordination and use of Russian-Belarusian regional troops groupings equipped with TNWs. He claimed a final decision on those procedures would be made during his visit to Moscow on May 8 (TASS, May 7). Thus, despite official statements, the new military doctrine, and Lukashenka’s secret decrees on the use of TNW carriers, the Belarusian military-political leadership still do not have the whole picture.

Lukashenka’s statement came after the announcement of a surprise inspection of non-strategic nuclear weapons carriers for the Belarusian Armed Forces. According to the State Secretary of the Belarusian Security Council Alexander Volfovich, this check was synchronized with the activities carried out by the Russian Armed Forces since May 6 on the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons (Belta.by May 7). The placement of Russian TNWs in Belarus demonstrates a readiness for escalation on the part of both Moscow and Minsk against the West in the case of a spilling over of hostilities from Ukraine or a NATO strike on either country.