On December 17, 2021, Russia published draft “proposals” on security guarantees with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States. Moscow expressed dissatisfaction with NATO’s eastward enlargement, Western assistance to Ukraine, the deployment of strike weapons in countries bordering Russia, as well as the presence of US nuclear weapons in Europe. “If the United States and NATO refuse to consider these security proposals, Russia’s response may be very different. It depends on the proposals that our military experts will make to me,” President Vladimir Putin said days later, on Russian television (Smotrim.ru, December 26, 2021). Some Russian military experts suggest that the Kremlin’s threatened “military-technical” response could include placing nuclear weapons in Belarus.
On November 30, in an interview with Russia’s state-owned Rossiya Segodnya news agency, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was asked about the possible transfer of US nuclear weapons from Germany to Poland. He said that in that event, he would propose to Putin to return Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus (RIA Novosti, December 2, 2021). The line of questioning and Lukashenka’s response were unlikely to have been improvised. These considerations were likely articulated weeks earlier, at a November 4 meeting of the Supreme State Council of the Union State of Russia and Belarus, where both sides signed a new (but secret) Union State Military Doctrine.
Commenting on Lukashenka’s remarks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that he “would take this statement as a very serious warning, which is dictated, first of all, by the reckless policy pursued by the West” (TASS, December 1, 2021). That is, Russia encourages Belarus to make nuclear threats because it expects that they will have an impact on the West. But if those threats are not heard, the implication is that Russia’s actual nuclear posture may change, including the deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko posited (RIA Novosti, December 21, 2021).
According to military sources cited by the Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik News, Moscow and Minsk have developed plans for employing tactical nuclear weapons, clarifying the options for their use to repel military threats from NATO (Sputnik.by, November 10, 2021). The new Military Doctrine of the Union State creates the necessary basis for a common Russo-Belarusian approach to the use of nuclear weapons, primarily tactical, agreed Andrei Rusakovich, the deputy chairperson of the Committee on International Affairs and National Security in the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament (Eurasia.expert, December 8, 2021).
In the previous version of the Union State Military Doctrine (approved in 2001), paragraph 1.4 stated that the Russian Federation and Belarus consider any violent actions directed against one of the parties as an encroachment on the Union State. It also explicitly said that nuclear weapons are a means of deterring large-scale aggression against the Union State (Postkomsg.com, December 21, 2001). This was confirmed as recently as January 2022, when Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin, in anticipation of the upcoming joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises, noted that “there was an obvious danger that the [joint] Regional Forces Group and its capabilities are not sufficient to reliably ensure the Union State’s security.” Fomin continued, “An agreement has been reached together with the Belarusian side that it will be necessary to engage the State’s entire military potential for joint defense” (TASS, January 18). That is, Russia’s nuclear potential is part of the military strategy for protecting the Belarusian border.
However, it is important for Moscow to show that this is not its unilateral initiative. If Lukashenka personally proposes deploying Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus, “this will be considered by both the Russian Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and, of course, the supreme commander-in-chief [i.e., the Russian president], taking into account the current situation,” noted State Duma defense committee deputy chair Yuri Shvytkin (Gazeta.ru, November 30, 2021). How Russia can manipulate such “independent” proposals can be seen in the example of Syria, where the Russian operation was justified by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s request for military assistance (Forbes.ru, September 30, 2015).
It is worth recalling that the idea to place nuclear weapons in Belarus was voiced as early as 2006–2007, in response to the planned deployment of US missile defense systems in Central Europe. The Russian ambassador to Belarus at that time, Alexander Surikov, stated then that Russia could deploy nuclear weapons facilities in Belarus (Gazetaby.media, August 27, 2007). However, he disavowed this message a few days later [Pravda.ru, August 28, 2007]. In 2006, during Russian-Belarusian military exercises, President Lukashenka admitted that the armed forces of the Union State could use tactical nuclear weapons against a potential enemy in the event of aggression against Belarus. However, Lukashenka immediately clarified that he did not consider it necessary then to place nuclear warheads on the territory of the republic Gazeta.ru, August 27, 2007).
On September 3, 2019, at the Minsk-based conference “For a Future Without Terrorism,” Lukashenka stressed that Belarus is a full participant in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which Washington and Moscow formally withdrew from a month before. “We have not left it and do not intend to produce or deploy such [intermediate-range] missiles, barring a threat to our security. There is no such situation yet. I hope it will not develop,” he noted [Belta.by, September 3, 2019]. However, the broader political and military-security situation changed since then.
Following the mass protests in 2020 and the critical response and pressure from the international community to how the Belarusian authorities dealt with the opposition, Lukashenka’s rhetoric turned sharply against NATO. As he stated last summer, the North Atlantic Alliance is methodically building up offensive military infrastructure along the borders of Belarus (Belta.by, July 30, 2021). In addition, the specification of a neutral and nuclear-free status for the Belarusian republic was conspicuously removed from the draft updated constitution that Belarus is planning to adopt this year, following a referendum on February 27 (Sb.by, January 22; see EDM, January 31).
The new Military Doctrine of the Union State and the updated Belarusian constitution, in theory, create legal grounds for the nuclearization of Belarus, offering Moscow a potent tool with which to respond to perceived threats from the United States. If the US will continue to host nuclear weapons on the territory of its allies, Russia will too. Moscow-based military experts have already begun to actively propose options for the deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus.