Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks on the phone.
(Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS)
“As long as countries continue their complicity in considering nuclear weapons as anything other than a global problem, this helps give Putin cover to get away with this kind of behavior,” said one expert.
In addition to denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to station so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons in Belarus, anti-war campaigners are calling into question the effectiveness of “nuclear deterrence” and reiterating their demands for global disarmament.
“As long as Putin has nuclear weapons, Europe cannot be safe,” Daniel Högsta, acting executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), said Monday in a statement.
But “he has justified this dangerously escalating proposal to move nuclear weapons into Belarus by citing decades of NATO nuclear sharing,” said Högsta. “As long as countries continue their complicity in considering nuclear weapons as anything other than a global problem, this helps give Putin cover to get away with this kind of behavior.”
When announcing the Kremlin’s plan on Saturday, Putin pointed to the United States’ positioning of tactical nuclear weapons in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.
“We’re basically doing the same thing they’ve been doing for a decade,” said Putin. “They have allies in certain countries and they train their carriers, they train their crews. We are going to do the same thing.”
“We need to urgently stigmatize and delegitimize the use, threat to use, testing, stationing, and possession of nuclear weapons.”
Russia “will not hand over” warheads to Belarus, Putin said. He explained that his country has already provided its ally with a nuclear-capable Iskander missile system and ensured that 10 Belarusian aircraft are equipped to use such weapons. According to Putin, Moscow intends to start training crews next week and aims to finish building a special storage facility for the arms by the beginning of July.
Putin’s announcement came 13 months into Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Three days after Putin launched the military assault, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko amended the Belarus Constitution to remove its nuclear-free clause. In late 2021, Lukashenko had offered to host Russian nuclear weapons if NATO moved U.S. atomic bombs from Germany to Eastern Europe.
Moscow’s deployment decision also came just days after the United Kingdom unveiled its plan to send armor-piercing tank rounds containing depleted uranium to Ukraine—a proposal that has elicited concerns about provoking a nuclear war as well as causing public health and environmental harms.
Putin said the U.K.’s announcement “probably served as a reason” why Lukashenko agreed to Russia’s plan, which he argued won’t violate the country’s obligations under the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
As Reutersexplains, the NPT “says that no nuclear power can transfer nuclear weapons or technology to a nonnuclear power, but it does allow for the weapons to be deployed outside its borders but under its control—as with U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe.”
ICAN warned Monday that “the deployment of nuclear weapons in additional countries… complicates decision-making and increases the risk of miscalculation, miscommunication, and potentially catastrophic accidents.”
Belarusian human rights activist and opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said Saturday that “Russia’s deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus directly violates the Constitution of Belarus and grossly contradicts the will of the Belarusian people.”
“This unacceptable development” makes “Belarus a potential target for preventive or retaliation strikes,” she warned, imploring world leaders to demand that Russia “stop this threatening deployment and impose adequate and severe sanctions on the regimes of Lukashenko and Putin as outright threats to international peace and security.”
According toAgence France-Presse, “Kyiv is seeking an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council over the move.”
The U.S., for its part, “has reacted cautiously,” Reutersreported Sunday. An unnamed senior Biden administration official told the news outlet that “we have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture nor any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon.”
But a European Union official said Monday that the bloc would respond with fresh sanctions if Russia moves ahead with its plan, according toAnadolu Agency, Turkey’s state-run news agency.
“That will be a further escalation and direct threat to European security,” said Peter Stano, the European Commission’s lead spokesperson on foreign affairs.
E.U. authorities “haven’t seen any confirmation from the Belarusian side about this being on the agenda or happening anytime,” Stano stressed. But if it happens, “there will be consequences.”
The Kremlin, meanwhile, said Monday that Russia won’t abandon its plan to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus because of mounting Western criticism.
In the words of Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, “Such a reaction of course cannot influence Russian plans.”
For Beatrice Fihn, the former executive director of ICAN who led the organization when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, the entire episode underscores the dangerous incoherence of “nuclear deterrence” theory, which asserts that threatening to use atomic bombs dissuades governments from taking certain actions and thus helps avert nuclear war.
In a Twitter thread, Fihn argued that “the way nuclear deterrence has been talked about this past year has been so bizarre.”
According to Fihn:
Most proponents of nuclear weapons have spent this past year arguing that we now shouldn’t believe in nuclear deterrence. They say, “Don’t believe Russia’s threats, it doesn’t deter us,” but also, “Don’t worry, Russia will definitely believe and be deterred by our nuclear threats.”
This doesn’t make any sense. And I genuinely would like to know from pro-nuclear weapons people in the U.S., U.K., France, and NATO, what could Putin do with his nuclear weapons that would deter you?
If your answer is “nothing” then you either admit nuclear deterrence doesn’t work or you’re basically saying nuclear deterrence only is credible when you do it but it’s not when your enemies do it.
“We know Putin is a war criminal who has no problem killing civilians, so how can you be so sure he won’t go ahead with this while at the same time [be] so sure that Putin… would be convinced that Biden would?” she asked.
“Nuclear weapons don’t seem to deter any real war and conflict situations,” said Fihn. “They only possibly deter hypothetical abstract scenarios in people’s minds.”
None of this means that I’m saying Putin won’t use nuclear weapons. There is a risk that Putin will use nuclear weapons in this war. We can debate how high it is, but everyone knows that this risk isn’t zero and agrees that it has grown this last year.
But the decision to use nuclear weapons doesn’t actually have much to do about believing or not believing in nuclear deterrence, it’s just a decision by one man—and will be made based on whatever goes through his head at that point.
He makes the decision based on whatever he’s thinking at that moment. Are you really that confident he will always think the right thing? That he’ll always make the decision you think he should be making?
“We have to stop being so stupid by continuing to say nuclear deterrence works,” Fihn added. “We need to urgently stigmatize and delegitimize the use, threat to use, testing, stationing, and possession of nuclear weapons.”
For the first time since the Cold War, the global nuclear stockpile—90% of which is controlled by Moscow and Washington—is projected to grow in the coming years, and the risk of weapons capable of annihilating life on Earth being used is rising.
“We need to use all available methods and tools of the international community to pressure Russia on this,” said Fihn. “And then we need to urgently work to eliminate nuclear weapons and remove this option from all counties. For Ukraine and also for every other country and person on this planet.”
In October, U.S. President Joe Biden warned that the war in Ukraine had brought the world closer to “Armageddon” than at any point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Just days later, however, his administration released a Nuclear Posture Review that nonproliferation campaigners said increases the likelihood of calamity, in part because it preserves the option of a nuclear first strike. The U.S. remains the only country to have used nuclear weapons in war, destroying the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs in August 1945.
“As we’re hurtling straight towards climate disaster, where large parts of our Earth will become inhabitable, the incentives for some leaders to use nuclear threats to grab whatever land and resources they feel they need will only increase,” Fihn argued. “Nuclear disarmament and stopping climate change are the two central fights for the fate of humanity. You need to get on the right side of these two issues if you want a chance for us all to survive.”