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Nuclear Wars: A Phantom Threat From Belarus

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Photo: Status world nuclear forces
Source: www.fas.org
Photo: Status world nuclear forces Source: www.fas.org

The European Union has reacted with condemnation to Russia's nuclear threats. At the first session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2026 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), currently taking place at the International Centre in Vienna, Austria, the EU issued a statement recalling that “on 3 January 2022, Russia signed a joint statement by the leaders of the five nuclear powers, which, inter alia, reaffirms that nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought.”

At the same time, Russia regularly declares its readiness to launch a nuclear strike against NATO member states and Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin, ex-President Dmitry Medvedev, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russian media chief Margarita Simonyan and many other Russian officials, media and opinion leaders have been stoking the nuclear rhetoric for years, seemingly unconcerned about the consequences of their statements.

Uncontrolled proliferation

At the beginning of the year, Russia announced its intention to transfer nuclear weapons to Belarus, contrary to the practices and norms of the international consensus. On 16 June, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow had carried out its intention and transferred the first batch of tactical nuclear warheads to Minsk. Putin added that “Russian troops will deploy the entire planned batch of tactical nuclear warheads in Belarus by the end of 2023,” ISW wrote in its analytical report.

The self-proclaimed president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, said in an interview against the backdrop of Russian military equipment that “bombs and missiles are already in Belarus” and “three times more powerful” than those dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

Similarly, self-proclaimed dictator Lukashenko, who has held sole power in the country since 1994, insisted that he had not simply asked Vladimir Putin to return the nuclear weapons that Belarus had given up after the collapse of the USSR, but had demanded it, arguing that with a “single army” it was a natural process.

Game changer in nuclear safety policy

According to the Federation of American Scientists, Russia has approximately 4,477 deployed and reserve nuclear warheads, including nearly 1,900 tactical nuclear weapons. It is not yet known how much of this arsenal Putin plans to move or has already moved outside the Russian Federation.

At the same time, it is clear that if Russia has indeed transferred weapons to Belarus, this should fundamentally change the architecture of nuclear security policy since the 1990s.

At present, global actors avoid precise language when responding to questions about the evidence base for the emergence of Belarus, a totalitarian country led by a self-proclaimed president and known for its practices of terror and repression against its own people, into the club of nuclear powers.

However, according to CNN’s sources, the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) has “no reason to doubt” that Russia has moved the first batch of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus. The officials did not provide journalists with more detailed explanations or arguments, but admitted that it is difficult for US intelligence to track these weapons, even with the help of satellite imagery.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has condemned President Putin’s statement on the use of nuclear weapons in Belarus. The German government has said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using nuclear intimidation by threatening to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus.

The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, stressed, that Russia's tactical nuclear weapons “mean an irresponsible escalation and threat to European security. The EU stands ready to respond with further sanctions”.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was forced to leave Belarus after running against Alexander Lukashenko in the presidential election, accused Western politicians of “keeping silent” about the first deployment of nuclear weapons outside Russia since the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

In early August, the EU reiterated its concern over Russia's announcement that it was ready to conduct a nuclear test and called on Russia “to fully respect its obligations as a state party to the NPT and to abide by the moratorium on nuclear testing”.

“Russia has grossly violated its obligations under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. This threatens to undermine the credibility of a nuclear-weapon state that does not respect its own security guarantees, thereby undermining the NPT and the disarmament and non-proliferation architecture,” the EU said in a statement issued at the session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2026 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

The EU also condemned Russia's statement of 25 March on its intention to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus. This decision contradicts Belarus' commitment to “eliminate all nuclear weapons on (its) territory”, as set out in the Budapest Memorandum. 

Not just a concern

Last Sunday, the President of Russia in 2008-2012 and current Chairman of the Russian Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, wrote on his Telegram channel: “If we imagine that the offensive of the Ukrainian bandits with the support of NATO succeeds and they carve off a part of our country, then we would have to use nuclear weapons within the framework of the Russian presidential decree of 2 June 2020.” He added: “There would be no other way out.”

US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham  commented on Medvedev's statement: “To my Russian friends who talk about using nuclear weapons in Ukraine: You need to understand that would be an attack on NATO itself, given Ukraine’s proximity to NATO territory. It's time to sober up and realise that your barbaric invasion of Ukraine has not worked. Come out and save many young Russians from a senseless death.”

Earlier, Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Richard Blumenthal introduced a resolution in the Senate stating that Russia's use of nuclear weapons would be considered an attack on the Alliance itself.

“We believe that nuclear weapons used in Ukraine will release radiation to large areas in Europe where NATO allies are located,” Graham said, quoting US President Joe Biden, that the threat of Russia using nuclear weapons is realistic.

Graham also stressed that the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus is evidence of specific provocative actions by Russia that raise the nuclear threat to the highest level since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the only way to prevent this is to make clear to the Russians the consequences of such actions.

“Our message is to those around Putin. If you do this and follow his order, should he give it, you can expect a massive response from NATO. You will be at war with NATO,” the senator explains.

Incidentally, the co-author of the draft resolution, Democrat Richard Blumenthal, proposes to equate threats from Russia with both the direct use of nuclear weapons and the undermining of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

“Any of these actions will have devastating consequences for the health of Ukrainians, but also of neighbouring NATO countries. Poland is at immediate risk. After all, the use of tactical nuclear weapons or the destruction of nuclear power plants will spread radiation and almost certainly harm people,” a representative of the Democratic Party stated.

***

There is a saying in international diplomacy that things “change slowly” and then “happen suddenly”. The main point here is that not all the work that goes into finding a solution can be made public, especially when it comes to geopolitics.

For those born and living on the European continent, and for everyone on the planet who is concerned about the prospect of unchecked proliferation of “uncontrolled nuclear weapons”, we should hope that complex and clear actions are underway to contain Russia, and that one day we will know that the threat of being killed by a bloody tyrant at the touch of a button is over.


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