On November 30, 2021, in an interview with the well-known Kremlin propagandist Dmitry Kiselev, Aliaksandr Lukashenka announced the possibility of deploying Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus as a symmetrical response to the deployment of nuclear weapons on the territory of neighbouring NATO countries. Judging by the context of the interview, one can state that this question was agreed ahead of time.
Later, this position was confirmed (albeit without apparent desire) by the head of the Foreign Ministry of the regime, Uladzimir Makei.
What was it? In the traditional manner, the passage about the return of Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus is intended to achieve two goals:
— to demonstrate loyalty to the Kremlin in the hope of reciprocal positive steps (for example, in the form of approving a new lending program from the Eurasian Fund for Stabilisation and Development in the amount of USD 3.5 billion);
— to put pressure on the West within the framework of the traditional story about “surrendering to the Kremlin as a result of Western pressure on the regime”.
One should understand that Lukashenka has a very reverent attitude towards nuclear weapons. Earlier, he repeatedly stated that the renunciation of the nuclear status of Belarus was a mistake. At the same time, it was not so much about the defence potential as about the political dimension of the possession of a nuclear status. From Lukashenka’s point of view, the presence of nuclear weapons increases the country’s strategic autonomy and the international weight of its ruler, which is most important.
Russia is already projecting its nuclear power across the whole Europe through:
— navy ships equipped with Kalibr missile systems for strikes (including nuclear) against both sea and ground targets;
— air patrolling of strategic aviation missile carriers.
What kind of weapon are we talking about? Judging by Lukashenk’s statements, in theory we can talk either about the Topol/Yars strategic mobile ground complexes or the Iskander operational-tactical missile systems with nuclear-armed ammunition.
Given the presence in Belarus of Russian multipurpose Su-30SM fighters, the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, carried by these aircraft, cannot be ruled out as well.
But there is a problem: geography. In those Soviet times, when the decision to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of the then BSSR was made, the Belarusian military district was in the rear, the distance to the border with NATO from Brest was then 850 km. And now it is about 10 km while in fact 2/3 of the length of the state border of the country falls on the countries which Lukashenka calles the enemy. They surround Belarus from three geographic directions. Those, there is no previous strategic depth.
Given the proximity of the means of destruction of a potential adversary (for example, the AGM-158 JASSM air-launched cruise missiles), which can be used in the first strike, the deployment of strategic Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus is unlikely.
It can be hypothesized that if Russian nuclear weapons do return to Belarus, it will be a small, probably even symbolic in size, arsenal of tactical ammunition (Iskander cruise and ballistic missiles, aerial bombs).
Format. The Belarusian regime sees the ideal deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in the following format:
— not a military base, i.e. without the immunities of extraterritoriality and obligations on the part of Minsk for the long-term deployment of such weapons;
— Russian forces are limited to units for the maintenance and use of nuclear weapons, while the protection of the weapons is provided by Belarus;
— the Belarusian military-political leadership participates in planning the use of nuclear weapons deployed on national territory and in making decisions on their use with a veto right;
— a joint Belarusian-Russian nuclear deterrent strategy will be developed, which will cover the entire Russian nuclear arsenal, and not only its part located in Belarus. The decision to use nuclear weapons in the first / preemptive strike will only have to be taken by consensus. Thus, Minsk will gain influence on the use of the entire Russian nuclear arsenal.
Although the option when the West will be frightened by the prospect of bringing Russian weapons to Belarus and will agree to the concessions desired for Minsk will also suit Lukashenka regime.
For Russia, the acceptable format for the deployment of nuclear weapons looks radically different:
— the long-term deployment of nuclear weapons, which is necessary to create the appropriate infrastructure, must be ensured through the format of creating a full-fledged Russian military base in Belarus;
— creation of the entire necessary system for the protection of the Russian nuclear arsenal in Belarus, including the deployment of the Russian ground grouping and air/missile defence systems;
— full and unconditional Russian control over these weapons, including the decision to use them. The maximum that Minsk can count on is notification of the start of a nuclear war.
Simply put, Belarus in this case becomes a hostage of Russian adventurism. The deployment of Russian nuclear weapons on Russian terms will mean the final loss of the Belarusian regime’s subjectivity in the eyes of the West. And not only of the West.
Conclusion. The topic of the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus is primarily of a political nature. Thus, the Belarusian regime hopes to improve its position in relations with both the West and the Kremlin. Moscow will use nuclear weapons to “designate” Belarus as a zone of its absolute influence, limiting the foreign policy autonomy of Minsk.
The goals and the desired format of such deployment do not coincide, and there is no room for compromise between formal allies. There is no excuse for the return of Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus: NATO has no plans to move the nuclear infrastructure eastward, towards a potential confrontation line. At least until the start of such a confrontation.
So at the moment the probability of the return of Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus seems extremely low. Although this topic will be periodically exaggerated by both the Belarusian regime and the Kremlin for political and propaganda purposes. But this probability will sharply increase in the event of a further aggravation of relations between Moscow and the West and their approach to the stage of military escalation. In recent weeks, the threat of such a development of the situation has increased. Although it did not become critical.