On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans to station Russian nuclear weapons on the soil of its neighbor and ally, Belarus. This decision, like Russia’s aggressive rhetoric more broadly, raises the risk of nuclear conflict over the war in Ukraine. Unfortunately, the US and its allies are limited in their ability to respond to this provocation because NATO has long engaged in the practice of stationing nuclear weapons in allied countries.
Putin’s decision is dangerous – and also follows NATO’s example
Stationing its nuclear weapons in Belarus will not improve Russia’s ability to achieve any military objectives in Ukraine. Russia already has the capacity to conduct a nuclear strike anywhere in Ukraine, in Europe, or in the world. This decision is a political move, not a military one.
From the first days of Russia’s invasion, Putin and other Russian leaders have repeatedly issued nuclear threats, both direct and indirect, hoping to improve Russia’s increasingly weak position in Ukraine. The news that Russia will deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus comes just weeks after Russia suspended its participation in the New START Treaty, the last remaining nuclear arms control agreement between the United States and Russia. As constraints wither and diplomatic channels are cut, this latest change to Russian nuclear policy is designed to create even more fear and uncertainty.
NATO condemned Putin’s announcement as “dangerous and irresponsible” rhetoric. Unfortunately, any protest from the United States and other NATO leaders is blunted by the reality that Putin’s proposal is not different from long-standing NATO practices. He heavily emphasized the precedent set by NATO in his statement, observing that “there is nothing unusual here… the United States has been doing this for decades. They have long deployed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allied countries.”
The United States first deployed its nuclear weapons in allied countries during the 1950s. This practice, referred to as ‘nuclear sharing,’ continues to this day. Currently, an estimated 100 US nuclear gravity bombs are hosted in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.
Just like any Russian nuclear weapons deployed in Belarus, there is no military mission for the small number of US nuclear weapons that remain in Europe. These weapons, too, are political signals, justified by NATO as a symbol of US commitment, alliance solidarity, and reassurance.
But these political signals are still harmful when they come from the United States. The presence of US nuclear weapons in Europe elevates the perceived legitimacy of these weapons. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote that the practice would allow other countries to become more familiar, and therefore more comfortable, with nuclear weapons; nuclear sharing therefore “[dispels] certain allies’ squeamishness about nuclear war” and helps “to overcome the trauma which attaches to the use of nuclear weapons and to decentralize the possession of nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible.” From the outset, a major goal of US nuclear sharing was to normalize nuclear threats, nuclear possession and even nuclear war.
Putin’s complaint about depleted uranium is disingenuous
Putin claimed that the “trigger” to this agreement between Russia and Belarus was the decision of the United Kingdom to supply depleted uranium shells to Ukraine, which he framed as a nuclear escalation. Depleted uranium is a dense metal that can be used on the tips of munitions to improve their ability to penetrate armor. Five countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia, produce depleted uranium weapons. However, only the United States and the United Kingdom are known to have used these weapons in combat.
Putin’s complaint is misleading: depleted uranium weapons are not nuclear weapons. However, they do have radiological properties. While depleted uranium has lower radiological toxicity than unaltered uranium, it is still dangerous to humans if ingested or inhaled. Weapons that use depleted uranium are controversial because of the danger they may pose to local communities when particles and fragments of uranium are left behind on battlefields. This issue, like most issues at the intersection of radiation, health, and the environment, is still severely understudied.
Despite this, Putin’s stated concern over Ukraine’s access to depleted uranium munitions is probably unrelated to his decision to station nuclear weapons in Belarus. The authoritarian leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, is a close ally of Putin who has repeatedly expressed his eagerness to host Russian nuclear weapons. In 2022, Lukashenko ordered a referendum that stripped the Belarussian constitution of its commitment to remain nuclear-weapons-free. Putin admits that Belarus already has appropriate aircraft and short-range missile systems in place to deliver Russian nuclear weapons.
Whatever his excuse, Putin’s announcement about stationing nuclear weapons in Belarus is only a confirmation of plans that have long been in motion. Nevertheless, his rhetoric on depleted uranium demonstrates how effectively Putin exploits controversial NATO policies to provide cover for his own aggression.
The United States and its NATO allies should set a better example for how to prioritize humanitarian principles during the conduct of war. Doing so may not change the actions of leaders like Putin, but it will make it harder for them to sell justifications to domestic and international audiences.
Keep Your Nukes to Yourself
While NATO may try to draw a line between ‘responsible’ and ‘irresponsible’ nuclear actors, NATO’s policies embolden imitation and make a coordinated international response to Russia’s provocative nuclear threats almost impossible. ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ hardly makes for an inspirational rallying cry.
There is no question that Putin’s announcement creates new dangers for the people of Ukraine, Europe, and the world. Each time Russia draws attention to its nuclear forces, it raises the temperature of the conflict in Ukraine, increasing the risk of further escalation. Stationing Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus takes us all another step closer to the threshold of nuclear war.
But if there is a silver lining, it is the opportunity in the future to negotiate the removal – by both Russia and the United States – of all nuclear weapons outside of their own territories. These weapons serve no purpose except to dirty more hands in the ugly business of engineering humanitarian catastrophe.