Belarusian nuclear forces? Assessing the potential impact on NATO nuclear sharing

Strategic Insight 020/2023

Ian O’Connor

13 July 2023

Belarussian nuclear forces? Assessing the potential impact on NATO nuclear sharing

On 26 March 2023, President Vladimir Putin first announced concrete plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. Under initial objectives, efforts to build a weapons storage facility and fully transfer warheads to the country should have been completed by 1 July 2023. Although Belarusian Su-25 crews  and Iskander ballistic missile units are thought to have already undergone training on the delivery of nuclear ordnance, reports indicate that the transfer of warheads is yet to be fully completed. The 2631st Missile and Air Ammunition Storage Base   in Western Belarus has been earmarked as the most likely future destination for said warheads.

While any tactical weapons stationed in Belarus will ultimately remain under Russian command and control, the development still marks a notable shift in Russian nuclear policy. The country has long argued that NATO nuclear sharing constitutes a violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Now the shoe is truly on the other foot.

Media coverage of the issue has been short sighted, mostly focusing on immediate potential for nuclear escalation given Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. While certainly not insignificant, fear of imminent escalation has been somewhat overblown. Russia has engaged in regular nuclear sabre-rattling throughout the conflict – all the while hoping to dampen external military support for Ukrainian forces.

Less attention has been paid to knock on challenges regarding NATO’s own nuclear sharing operations. The stationing of tactical weapons in Belarus has the potential to heighten fears of nuclear abandonment amongst Eastern allies, particularly in Poland. As part of its wider response, NATO should enhance extended deterrence vis-à-vis Russia, while balancing the risks posed by any expansion of nuclear sharing.

Deterrence and nuclear sharing during the Cold War

In its most basic form, deterrence leverages the “threat of force in order to discourage an opponent from taking an unwelcome action”. Effective deterrence requires any threat of violence to be credible. While a state can readily convince adversaries of its willingness to defend its own territory, extending such a pledge beyond the homeland is fraught with difficulty. In addition to possessing sufficient military capacity, a state must take clear steps which broadcast its commitment to the defence of its allies.

The U.S. was predominantly successful in its efforts to thread this needle in Cold War Europe. However, this was not without moments of doubt from its fellow NATO allies. With the Red Army on its doorstep, West Germany was particularly sceptical of U.S. security guarantees  during the early stages of the Cold War. In the 1950s, as the Eisenhower administration carried out a significant troop drawdown, West German leaders began to seriously question the United States’ willingness to  trade “Boston for Bonn”  in the event of a Soviet invasion.

To remedy this perceived threat, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer called for the development of a West German tactical nuclear weapons capability in 1957, likening the weapons to a simple evolution in the development of artillery. However, the Eisenhower administration intervened before such an initiative could get off the ground. Under a scheme that would ultimately become NATO nuclear sharing, the U.S. granted the Luftwaffe controlled access to B-61 tactical nuclear weapons. This effort managed to improve extended deterrence and assuage the Federal Republic’s security concerns throughout the Cold War. The initiative also halted any potential West German nuclear programme in its tracks. With the end of the Cold War, many hoped NATO nuclear sharing would slowly become a relic of history. However, this was not to be.

Old problems, modern solutions?

NATO’s frontline has since shifted eastwards to the Baltics and Poland. Amidst Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, regional security concerns have heightened considerably. Russia’s regular attempts at nuclear blackmail have been a topic of major debate. Despite their non-participation in nuclear sharing, Baltic states continue to have strong confidence in NATO nuclear deterrence. This sentiment is expressed quite aptly in the words of Lithuanian Defence Minister Arvydas Anusauskas. In April this year, he stated his belief  that “[t]he defence of a NATO country against the threat of (Russian) nuclear weapons is guaranteed, regardless of whether these weapons are stationed to the west of our borders, to the east or to the north”.

Poland does not necessarily share in the same confidence. A survey from October 2022 suggests that 54.1% of the population wish for the country to participate directly in NATO nuclear sharing. The Polish presidential administration has also spoken up this possibility. Its suggestions have ranged from proposals to begin the full basing of tactical nuclear weapons on Polish territory, to simple calls for increased input into NATO nuclear planning. The likely stationing of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus has hastened such discussion. NATO will need to respond to this development if it wishes to assuage Polish security concerns.

However, NATO’s response need not be a knee-jerk reaction. It should balance the need to enhance extended deterrence with the risks posed by expanding nuclear sharing. Indeed, the full basing of B-61s on Polish territory may be unnecessary. The regional balance of power has shifted significantly since the days of Adenauer. NATO Eastern flank forces now possess a notable conventional advantage vis-à-vis Russia. This is set to further increase given continuing Russian armour losses in Ukraine, Swedish and Finnish entry into NATO and Poland’s ambitious plans to procure more than 1,000 new main battle tanks. The deterrence value of basing B-61s on Polish territory is also questionable. It may only serve to further increase crisis instability while providing limited advantage over current NATO nuclear infrastructure. As others have noted, any significant increase in nuclear risk could ultimately benefit Russia, thus further impairing NATO’s ability to respond to the war in Ukraine.

There may instead be a better position which satisfies both Poland and its NATO allies. Acknowledging allied reservations, Polish security officials have most recently proposed the idea of its air force participating in NATO nuclear sharing outside of Polish territory. This would involve basing future Polish F-35 pilots at existing NATO nuclear sites in either Germany, the Netherlands or Belgium. Such an effort could enhance extended deterrence and assuage Poland without significantly increasing nuclear risk. It would also help to backstop the conventional aspects of NATO’s recently adopted deterrence by denial strategy. The strategy aims to strengthen the Eastern flank via the creation of a new rapid response NATO Force Model and the upgrading of multinational NATO battlegroups to brigade size deployments. In the long run, such practical defence measures will likely prove more effective than overly rash decisions in the nuclear domain.

Ian O’Connor is a Junior Research Fellow & Azure Forum Strategic Insights Managing Editor. His research interests include strategy, non-proliferation and arms control.

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The Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy is Ireland’s first and only independent think tank dedicated to providing recommendations on peace, security and defence. As Ireland’s first national security research institute, the Forum aims to contribute to national and international security analysis and strategic studies for a more peaceful, secure, resilient and prosperous future nationally and globally at a time of emerging global risk.