As birthday greetings, it was hardly a bouquet or a cake. As Belarusians celebrated the 105th anniversary of their brief period of statehood following the first world war, Vladimir Putin announced plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in their country. Training will start in April, and storage facilities will be ready by July 1st, the Russian leader said. That seems implausible. Nothing suggests that the substantial building work involved has actually started; such facilities in the nearby Kaliningrad have been under construction for seven years.
The military significance of this is limited. The Kremlin regularly rehearses the deployment of parts of its 2,000-strong stockpile of short-range nuclear weapons in western Russia. More important is the symbolism: Putin said the move came in response to a request from the Belarusian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka (who mostly uses the Russian rendering of his name: Aleksandr Lukashenko). Whether the autocrat in Minsk actually wanted the weapons is irrelevant. Their promised deployment underlines Russia’s increasing grip on its smaller western neighbor.
It also showed the limits of China’s repeated attempts to curb Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling. Only days earlier, during Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow, the Chinese and Russian leaders signed a joint statement saying that nuclear powers should not station their weapons beyond their borders and, indeed, should remove any such systems previously deployed. That was a clear dig at the United States, which maintains around half its arsenal of 200 non-strategic nuclear weapons in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Turkey. But so long as Belarus remains an independent country (which cannot be taken for granted indefinitely), Putin has just breached the new rule. It also breaches the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapon: the US weapons in Europe are exempt from its provisions because they were already deployed before it came into force in 1970.
The ostensible reason was to respond to Britain’s provision to Ukraine of anti-tank rounds containing depleted uranium. These armor-piercing shells produce toxic waste but have nothing to do with nuclear fission. Another prompt may have been the anniversary of pre-war statehood on March 25th. This is celebrated by Belarusians around the world, but not at home, where its commemoration is banned. The United States imposed more sanctions and visa bans on regime figures to mark the occasion.
Anyone expecting these measures to work quickly, or at all, should look at history. The European Union first imposed sanctions on Belarus in 2004, with the US applying them two years later. They have not been entirely fruitless: a handful of political prisoners gained their freedom, for example. But they have been a strategic failure. Lukashenko is still in power, using ever-more repressive means to stay there. Belarus has come more closely under the Kremlin’s thumb. The opposition is fragmented, with its leaders in jail or exiled. Critics say the best hope of toppling the regime is to integrate Belarusian society more closely with the West; sanctions have the opposite effect.
Yet Putin’s failing war in Ukraine spells new hope for Belarus. Russian imperialism and militarism have crystallized and consolidated feelings of national identity in Belarus as well as Ukraine. Any attempt to use the Belarusian military against Ukraine risks mutiny or desertion while volunteer Belarusians are fighting on Ukraine’s side.
The outside world is rightly preoccupied with Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction. But it should also devote some thought to a Belarus strategy. A defeat for Russia will leave Lukashenka without his only real protector. A dramatic offer of eventual European Union membership, for example, could prompt a split in the regime or its overthrow. After 106 frustrating years, 2024 might provide Belarusians grounds for celebration.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.