Three days after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his intentions to deploy “tactical nuclear weapons” to Belarus, the Kremlin ally said it was willing to host the arsenal to defend itself.
“Over the last two and a half years, the Republic of Belarus has been subjected to unprecedented political, economic and information pressure from the United States, the United Kingdom and its NATO allies, as well as the member states of the European Union,” the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday in a statement. “In view of these circumstances, and the legitimate concerns and risks in the sphere of national security arising from them, Belarus is forced to respond by strengthening its own security and defense capabilities.”
Putin once again rattled the nuclear saber during a state media interview on Saturday, saying that 10 Belarusian fighter jets had been modified to carry Russian tactical nuclear weapons and that a storage facility for the munitions would be ready by July 1. A tactical nuclear weapon refers to bombs and missiles that are designed for battlefield use and shorter-range attacks, whereas “strategic” nuclear weapons are intended to destroy entire cities.
Putin said he was willing to transfer his nation’s nuclear weapons because Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko had requested them. Just last week, Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping signed a lengthy joint-declaration that stated, in part: “All nuclear-weapon states should refrain from deploying nuclear weapons abroad.” Yet Putin cast the move as “nothing unusual” because the U.S. military has pre-positioned nuclear bombs in NATO nations since the earliest days of the Cold War. “We are doing what they have been doing for decades, stationing them in certain allied countries, preparing the launch platforms and training their crews,” Putin said. “We are going to do the same thing.”
U.S. officials and independent analysts said the announcement, which comes as his forces sustain large amounts of casualties on the battlefield in Ukraine and ahead of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive, thus far appeared to be primarily for show. Much of what Putin said about the relationship with Belarus was already known—the training and aircraft modifications were previously announced—and no evidence has emerged to suggest that Russia has invested the time, money or effort to build the type of robust storage facilities necessary to house nuclear warheads.
“We’re watching this as best we can,” White House National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday. “We haven’t seen any movement by Mr. Putin to act on what he pledged he would do. And we haven’t seen any indications that Mr. Putin is leaning towards, or getting closer to, any preparations for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine.”
Nuclear weapon facilities are regarded as the most sensitive in the Russian military, just as they are to the United States. Constructing such a long-term storage site is often a years-long effort that essentially involves a building military base within a military base, assembling concrete and steel underground bunkers nicknamed “igloos,” where the warheads are kept. These facilities are surrounded with several layers of physical security, such as barbed wire fences and guard posts, and have accompanying weapons transports and service trucks. None of that has been observed in Belarus.
“We haven’t seen anything that looks like what the Russians normally built for nuclear weapons storage,” said Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists, who analyzes commercial satellite imagery and other open-source intelligence on nations’ strategic forces. “I would certainly rule out a permanent storage site, unless they’ve been able to secretly build all this,” he said. “But just in comparison, when they upgraded the bunker that is in Kaliningrad, that took them about six years.”
Putin may be referring to building a contingency site where nuclear bombs can be kept in emergency situations and picked up by warplanes. But there’s also no sign that construction is underway on these facilities, which are climate-controlled and heavily guarded. It’s doubtful that Russia could complete such a facility by Putin’s stated July 1 deadline, Kristensen said. “This is not something that they’re going to be able to do in three or four months,” he said. “It’s not just like driving over and putting them in a garage somewhere.”
Andrey Baklitskiy, a senior researcher in the weapons of mass destruction and other strategic weapons program at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, said he’s not convinced that the Kremlin is ready to deploy warheads to Belarus. “Putin’s statement was ambiguous, but I think at this point we can only say that Russia has provided Belarus with nuclear-capable jets and missile systems, will train the crews to handle nuclear weapons, and will build a storage facility in Belarus.”
Russia and Belarus have telegraphed the possibility of nuclear basing for more than a year. On Feb. 27, 2022, three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Belarusian voters approved a referendum to permanently host Russian weapons and Russian forces—if the Kremlin was willing to do so. The former Soviet-bloc state had nuclear weapons stationed inside its borders during the Cold War, but returned them to Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, joining Ukraine and Kazakhstan in giving them away.
In the intervening years, Putin has invested heavily in his nation’s tactical nuclear arsenal, including 2,000 gravity bombs, anti-ship missiles, torpedoes, and cruise missiles, which have been updated with greater accuracy, longer ranges, and lower yields to suit their potential war-fighting role, according to U.S. assessments.
The U.S., for its part, has largely abandoned developing and deploying these tactical weapons after President George H. W. Bush issued an order to do so in September 1991. After purging some 5,000 weapons, the only non-strategic nukes it has left are roughly 100 B61 bombs that the U.S. has deployed in five NATO nations stretching from the Netherlands to Turkey. Even though the weapons are mostly symbolic to alliance unity, Russia has long requested the B61s’ removal from the European continent—a demand reiterated as the Ukraine crisis has worsened.
Belarus borders Ukraine and three NATO member states—Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia—but analysts said Putin gains no strategic advantage by moving nuclear warheads there. Russian forces can already hit NATO countries’ capitals from inside their own country. And Putin has made clear he does not intend to transfer control of the weapons to Belarus. He wants to retain decision-making power over their use, just as the U.S. does with its weapons in NATO countries.
Putin’s declaration, analysts say, could just be another example of him reminding the world that Moscow’s nuclear arsenal is the world’s largest. Since he ordered the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has publicly placed Russia’s nuclear forces on “special combat readiness” alert, held high-profile nuclear drills, and issued veiled threats to use a nuclear weapon if any nation gets in the way of his goal to overthrow the government in Kyiv. There’s no indication he’s doing more than rattling the saber, but the threats over such powerful weapons can’t be disregarded.