Russia’s staunchest ally, Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has said that the countries willing “to join the Russia and Belarus union” will be transferred the nukes to deploy against external threats on their territory. In an interview with the state-run Russia 1 channel, Lukashenko said on May 28, “No one minds Kazakhstan and other countries having the same close relations that we have with the Russian Federation.” He continued, “It’s very simple.” “Join the Union State of Belarus and Russia. That’s all: there will be nuclear weapons for everyone.”
Kazakhstan possessed an estimated 1,410 Soviet-era strategic nuclear warheads and an undisclosed figure of tactical nuclear weapons. One of the ex-Soviet Union’s two major nuclear test sites was located in Semipalatinsk, also known as “The Polygon” in northeast Kazakhstan where at least 460 nuclear tests took place. In April 1995, Kazakhstan transferred all of its Soviet-era nuclear weapons to Russia after the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site was officially closed in 1991. Kazakhstan is also a party to the Collective Security Treaty Organization [CTSO], an intergovernmental military alliance in Eurasia led by Moscow comprising six post-Soviet states: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan.
Astana has not possessed nuclear weapons since the 90s. The United States assisted Kazakhstan in shutting down permanently at least 13 boreholes and 181 tunnels at the nuclear test site. The two countries down-blended the unirradiated highly enriched uranium [HEU] from the IGR research reactor in September 2019.
Testing site of Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan. Credit: UN
A deal shrouded in Cold War secrecy
Belarusian President’s remarks about the deployment of nukes in “friendly countries” comes just days after he announced the transfer of the tactical nuclear weapons from Moscow to Minsk, adding that such a move was not in violation of the nuclear non-proliferation obligations. Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] is a landmark pact that was signed by more than 190 countries for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. It entered into force in 1970.
“It was necessary to prepare storage sites, and so on. We did all this. Therefore, the movement of nuclear weapons began,” Lukashenko said, according to state news agency Belta.
Belarusian leader ensured the safety of the nuclear weapons, saying “This is not even up for discussion. Don’t worry about nuclear weapons. We are responsible for this. These are serious issues. Everything will be alright here.” How many nukes Russia will deploy in Minsk as a part of the deal is shrouded in Cold War secrecy. Russia argues that nukes are supplied to Belarus in a defensive posture as it borders three NATO member states – Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
“Tactical” nuclear weapons are deployed for specific gains to destroy enemy troops on a battlefield rather than have the capacity to wipe out swathes of large cities like the strategic nuclear weapons that are fitted to land- or submarine-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. US estimates suggest that Russia has about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, including the bombs deployed on aircraft, warheads for short-range missiles and artillery rounds.
Signed in 1999, the Agreement on Establishment of the Union State of Belarus and Russia Treaty sets up a foundation for wide-ranging alliances between the two allies that span across the economic, information, technology, agriculture, and border security among other things, according to Belarus’ government website. In January 2022, Belarus also hosted thousands of Russian troops to hold a joint military exercise, and the Russian troops in Belarus have served as part of an invasion force during Russia’s military incursion in neighbouring Ukraine.
The Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine K-266 Orel. Credit: AP
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, amidst escalating standoff with the US, EU and its allies announced that Moscow will station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus in a warning to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] over the latter’s military support for Ukraine. Putin draws a parallel between his deployment in Belarus to the US maintaining nuclear arsenals in Europe. Russia’s President noted, that he wouldn’t be transferring control of the nukes to Belarus. This would be the first time since the mid-1990s that Russia will base such weapons outside its territory.
“There is nothing unusual here either: firstly, the United States has been doing this for decades. They have long deployed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allied countries,” Russia’s President Putin told state television.
“We agreed that we will do the same – without violating our obligations, I emphasize, without violating our international obligations on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.”
Moscow, since the inception of the military intervention in neighbouring Ukraine, has been dynamically shifting its rhetoric from “demilitarisation” of its neighbour to combating “the collective West”. In response to Russia Belarus’ tactical nuclear deployment, a senior US administration official was reported saying: “We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture; nor any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon. We remain committed to the collective defence of the NATO alliance.” US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller reportedly stated, “It’s the latest example of irresponsible behaviour that we have seen from Russia since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine over a year ago.”
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Credit: AP
European Union lambasted Russia and Belarus’ nuclear deployment deal, labelling the agreement “a step which will lead to further extremely dangerous escalation”. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted on Sunday that Lukashenko’s words “directly indicate that the Russian Federation is deliberately ‘killing’ the concept of global nuclear deterrence and ‘burying’ the key Global Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.”
“This fundamentally undermines the principles of global security,” Podolyak said. “There can only be one solution: a tough stance of nuclear states; relevant UN/IAEA resolutions; extensive sanctions against (Russian state nuclear energy firm) Rosatom; systemic financial sanctions against Belarus and ultimately against Russia.”