Like a lot of what Vladimir Putin says about nuclear weapons, his suggestion that Russia would start storing its bombs in Belarus may add up to less than it appears.
In February last year, Putin said he was putting Russia’s nuclear arsenal on high alert, but there was no perceptible change in the country’s nuclear posture, or any unusual movements of its weapons.
Putin and the leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, have been hinting at some kind of nuclear basing arrangement for some time. Over a year ago, the Belarus leader staged a referendum to change the constitution to allow for that.
What Putin is threatening this time is to take another couple of steps along that road, starting the training of Belarus aircrews in early April to pilot aircraft carrying nuclear bombs, and to finish storage facilities for tactical nuclear weapons by 1 July.
Nuclear experts are sceptical of such ambitious timelines, and point out that Russia has been working on a nuclear weapon storage facility in Kaliningrad for at least seven years and it is still not clear whether the bombs have actually arrived there.
So far, no satellite imagery has surfaced that might suggest something similar is being built in Belarus.
“I’ve looked around at some of the likely bases and I don’t see anything that indicates construction of a nuclear storage site,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists. “But you can’t rule it out. You can bet a lot of people are combing over the country right now.”
Putin had suggested a nuclear announcement was on the way earlier in the week, saying Russia would respond to Britain’s decision to supply armour-piercing shells to Ukraine made of depleted uranium.
Such shells are toxic enough to require special handling and pose an environmental threat, but they are by no means nuclear weapons. In his remarks on Saturday, Putin did not dwell on the issue and attributed any such linkage to Lukashenko.
Instead, he focused on a longstanding gripe of Moscow’s about the US nuclear-sharing arrangements with five of its allies: Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey. Under that arrangement, the US stores B61 gravity bombs (about 100 in all) in those countries and their aircrews are trained to fly planes carrying them in the event of nuclear war.
Russia argues this is a violation of the 1968 nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and just last week, Putin’s joint statement with Xi Jinping said: “All nuclear-weapon states should refrain from deploying nuclear weapons abroad and withdraw nuclear weapons deployed abroad.”
Putin’s announcement about Belarus suggests he has changed his mind about that principle since Tuesday. However, he can expect the global backlash to be muted due to widely shared impatience over many years with the US-Nato sharing arrangements.
Those arrangements are not technically in violation of the NPT as they predated the treaty. The Soviet Union accepted them and at the time, Moscow could deploy its nuclear weapons in Belarus or any other of its republics. But when Belarus, Ukraine and the republics became independent, it lost that right.
The US sharing deal with its allies, and the proposed Russian arrangement with Belarus, also get around NPT restrictions by not formally transferring the stored weapons to the host government until a war begins. For non-weapon states and arms control advocates, however, that is a cynical dodge and against the spirit of the NPT.
The Obama administration contemplated withdrawal of the B61s from Europe as a move towards disarmament, but some European allies resisted any move that might suggest the nuclear umbrella was getting thinner, and then relations with Moscow worsened again. Rather than being removed, the bombs were modernised, and the new version, the B61-12, is in the process of being transferred to Europe.
“The new bombs are a whole new wave of weapons coming in and that’s of grave concern to European populations,” said Susi Snyder, the programme coordinator of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
“Putin calling this out and threatening to do the same thing is putting a spotlight on a problem that has existed for quite some time and that the rest of the world has also been trying to draw attention to and remedy.”
Kristensen argued, however, that Putin has in large part himself to blame for the continued presence of B61s in Europe, through his seizure of Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014.
He said: “There’s no doubt in my mind that if Putin had not started what he’s doing there in 2014, it’s very likely that the nuclear weapons would have been withdrawn by now.”