Minsk, Belarus – On May 25, 2023, the government of Belarus and the defense minister of Russia signed a document that permits the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons into the country. In March of this year, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, announced their plans to station such weapons in Belarus; the country’s government confirmed the decision later that month. This was a response to years of pressure by the Western powers, a build-up of military presence near its borders, and sanctions imposed on them.

This move will not contradict The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, as Moscow will not transfer control of the warheads to Minsk. The Belarusian government stated that it assures the international community that they would not have control over the nuclear weapons stored by Russia. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which the Soviet Union signed, prohibits nuclear powers from transferring nuclear weapons or technology to non-nuclear powers. However, it permits deploying such weapons outside a nation’s borders, provided the original nuclear power retains control over them.

A Russian Ally In Europe

While Belarus has not engaged against Ukrainian forces, they have provided logistic and military support to Russia. The country had also allowed Russian troops to use its territory to invade Ukraine, giving Russia the upper hand during the earlier days of the invasion. In addition, they have vetoed UN resolutions condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine and threatened to use nuclear weapons against NATO if it were to intervene in the war in Ukraine. All of which have raised tensions between NATO and Belarus.

Moscow has assisted in converting 10 Belarusian aircraft, making them capable of carrying tactical nuclear warheads, and will start training the country’s pilots to fly the reconfigured planes in about a month, giving Belarus the capability to go through with its threat to NATO. With the Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlan Tsikhanouskaya exiled and no apparent strong moves against these decisions, Belarus remains a Russian European ally.

The Western Powers Respond

In response to the announcement, the US State Department criticized the decision as an example of “irresponsible behavior.” In addition, it reiterated previous warnings that using chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons in the conflict would have “severe consequences.” However, the specifics of these consequences were not detailed. Despite this, Washington has stated it does not intend to alter its strategic nuclear position and has found no indications that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon.

Tactical nuclear weapons, designed for battlefield use and generally smaller in yield than strategic nuclear weapons, are the focus of this recent deployment. Russia holds a significant numerical advantage over the United States and NATO regarding these weapons, with the US estimating that Russia possesses around 2,000 functional tactical warheads, compared to the US’s approximately 200, half of which are stationed at bases in Europe.