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Belarus adds nuclear weapons to its military doctrine but can't use them without Russian approval

For the first time since gaining independence, Belarus has included a clause about nuclear weapons in its military doctrine. According to state-owned news agency BELTA, Minister of Defense Viktor Khrenin has presented the government a draft of the updated document, which envisages the possibility of Belarus using Russian nuclear weapons deployed on its territory.

“As part of our response to possible threats to our country's military security, we have clearly defined and are communicating Belarus's views on the use of tactical nuclear weapons deployed on our territory,” Khrenin said. The document also contains a list of countries that Belarus views as a source of threats and features a new chapter on Minsk's commitments as an ally. As he noted, this chapter takes stock of the experience of Kazakhstan in early 2022, which, according to the Belarusian Defense Minister, “survived a coup attempt.”

The Security Council of Belarus considered the draft military doctrine on Jan. 16, and the document will now be finalized and submitted to the All-Belarusian People's Assembly for approval.

Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and his Belarusian counterpart Viktor Khrenin after signing the terms of Russian nuclear weapons deployment to Belarus
Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and his Belarusian counterpart Viktor Khrenin after signing the terms of Russian nuclear weapons deployment to Belarus

The entire process has taken less than a year. In March 2023, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was building a storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus and claimed his country had already sent an Iskander complex there. Two months later, in May, Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and his Belarusian counterpart Viktor Khrenin signed the agreement laying out terms for the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons on the Belarusian territory — with Shoigu emphasizing that control over the nuclear weapons and the decision to use them would remain firmly with the Russian side. Finally, last June, the Russian president announced the delivery of the first batch of nuclear warheads to Belarus.

Two prominent subject matter experts, Valery Karabalevich and Pavel Podvig, spoke to The Insider about what the development portends.

As Belarusian political scientist Karbalevich sees it, President Alexander Lukashenko will certainly not be allowed to call the shots when it comes to the use of the Russian nuclear weapons located on Belarusian territory. According to his assessment:

“A nuclear strike would have to be a joint decision of the Russian and Belarusian leaders. Lukashenko cannot make such a call independently — not without Putin. Moreover, it's technically impossible because of the mechanisms that can only be triggered by a nuclear power leader – that is, Putin. One would need keys and codes that are in the possession of the commander of the Russian armed forces.
“Such an act would be equally impossible without Lukashenko because the carriers of nuclear weapons deployed in Belarus are Belarusian systems. For one, the aircraft form part of the Belarusian Air Force, so they are subordinate to Lukashenko. The same goes for the Iskander missiles: one would need two keys, both from Russia and Belarus.
“One can hardly divine what’s going on in the heads of the Belarusian political and military leadership. They may indeed sincerely believe that the West harbors plans to launch a physical attack against Belarus. Alternatively, they may pretend to believe in this threat to influence the population. One thing is certain: the threat itself is fictitious.
“Meanwhile, the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus brings real benefits to both political regimes. Putin moves his tactical nuclear weapons closer to NATO's borders, thus upping his game and creating a new threat to the West. This step bolsters his opportunities for escalation and intimidation – Russia’s strategies of choice in recent years.
“Of course, he couldn't have accomplished it without the consent of President Lukashenko, a longtime advocate of nuclear weapons. [Lukashenko] regretted exporting them to Russia after the collapse of the USSR and even tried to slow down this process in the 1990s. Now that Belarus finally has some nuclear weapons again, it's Christmas come early for Lukashenko. He sees it as a guarantee that Belarus will not be attacked. As he once argued, ‘countries with nuclear capabilities don't get bombed.’ Furthermore, the weapons increase the political weight of Lukashenko and Belarus in negotiations with the West. In his mind, the West will make concessions out of fear, so he has to talk to the enemy from a position of power. The more fear he instills, the more concessions he will get.
“And indeed, Western countries perceive the deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus as a threat. However, they are now convinced that Lukashenko is even less independent, that he is a puppet of the Kremlin, and therefore, it is pointless to negotiate with him in the first place. The West has so far refrained from any action. Poland offered the U.S. the opportunity to deploy some weapons on Polish territory, but this initiative did not transcend the level of talks. The Americans did not see it as practical to respond to Russia’s and Belarus’ steps.
“Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland are most likely enhancing their national security, but the three neighboring states are motivated by the war in Ukraine, the deployment of Russian troops in Belarus, the emergence of Wagner PMCs there, and so on – not just nuclear weapons.”

In addition to its conversation with Karbalevich, The Insider also spoke with Pavel Podvig about the topic of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus. Podvig, a researcher at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, cited both Russian military doctrine and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons while presenting his argument that only Russia can make the decision regarding the use of nuclear weapons, regardless of whether or not those weapons are physically located on the territory of Belarus. Podvig’s analysis follows:

“First of all, the Russian doctrine unambiguously says that the decision to use nuclear weapons is made exclusively by the president of the Russian Federation. From a practical standpoint, I struggle to envisage any scenario in which the Russian President would cede the right to make such a decision to anyone.
“The Non-Proliferation Treaty prohibits Russia (as well as other nuclear powers) from transferring control of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear-weapon states. Naturally, the President of Belarus would not be able to order a strike without said control; it would only be possible if Russia violated its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Notably, in the case of NATO’s nuclear sharing policy, the decision to use the weapons can also be made only by the nuclear powers. Admittedly, there is a gray area because the scheme assumes that non-nuclear-weapon states may also participate in the actual use and may hypothetically gain control at some point. But that can only happen after a nuclear power has called a strike.
“As for whether Poland will join the nuclear sharing program, I still think not. They have entertained the idea for a while, but I hope NATO allies will eventually persuade them that such a step is unwise. I am not convinced that American nuclear weapons in Europe add anything at all to the security of NATO as a whole or that of its members. There is no military use for these weapons. However, NATO members tend to associate a certain political role with them. Poland's idea, as I understand it, is that placing nuclear weapons on its territory will improve its standing within the alliance – similar to the logic followed by the Belarusian leaders. That said, Poland already plays a prominent role in NATO. The physical deployment of nuclear weapons won't make much of a difference.”

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