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As the world continues to grapple with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a worrying development has emerged that threatens to further destabilize the already precarious security landscape in Eastern Europe. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced that Moscow will station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. Though Putin claims this action does not violate nuclear non-proliferation agreements and is merely comparable to the U.S. stationing its weapons in Europe, it is impossible to ignore the potential ramifications of this decision, especially given the historical precedents.

The last time Moscow based nuclear arms outside of its own territory was in the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. At that time, nuclear weapons were held in four newly independent states: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. The eventual transfer of all warheads back to Russia was completed in 1996, marking a key milestone in global disarmament efforts. Fast forward to today, and Putin's announcement comes as a stark reminder of a more dangerous and unstable past that many had hoped was behind us.

To understand the gravity of this situation, look back at the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the world came dangerously close to nuclear war. The Soviet Union tried to station nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from the U.S. coast. The tense staredown that ensued between the U.S. and the Soviet Union led to an agreement to dismantle respective missile installations in Cuba and Turkey, but not before the world stood by in fear of a devastating nuclear conflict. While the situation in Belarus may not be an exact parallel, it serves as a potent reminder of how the presence of nuclear weapons in geopolitically sensitive areas can rapidly escalate tensions between major powers.

The decision to station nuclear weapons in Belarus is particularly concerning given the country's proximity both to Ukraine and to NATO members including Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko has been a staunch Kremlin ally and supporter of the invasion of Ukraine, and this move further entrenches Russia's presence along NATO's eastern flank. The potential for miscalculations or misunderstandings between Russia and NATO is heightened, increasing the risk of an unintended escalation toward open conflict.

What are the points of concern?

Increased risk of accidental conflict: The proximity of Russian nuclear weapons to NATO borders increases risk. The 1983 Able Archer incident, when a NATO military exercise was misinterpreted by the Soviet Union as a potential nuclear attack, serves as a stark reminder of how easily situations can spiral out of control.

Erosion of international arms control efforts: The stationing of nuclear weapons in Belarus undermines global non-proliferation and disarmament efforts, potentially setting back progress achieved through treaties like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START. This could encourage other countries to pursue their own interests in the nuclear realm, unraveling the existing arms control framework and increasing the risk of nuclear proliferation.

Regional instability: The presence of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus may prompt neighboring countries to reassess their own security strategies and consider strengthening their military capabilities, perhaps even pursuing nuclear weapons themselves. 

What does Putin want to achieve?

Russia has a long history of using its nuclear arsenal as a tool of geopolitical influence. It is widely understood that Russia's possession of nuclear weapons is key to its status as a major world power. Given this, it is not surprising that Russia may seek to exploit the West's fear of nuclear escalation in order to achieve its geopolitical objectives.

The threat of stationing tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus could be an attempt by Russia to pressure the Western pro-Ukraine coalition into negotiations. Putin has previously escalated tensions with the U.S. by announcing the suspension of Russia's participation in New START, and instructing the Russian Ministry of Defense and State Atomic Energy Corporation, Rosatom, to prepare for nuclear tests if needed. 

Russia is also capitalizing on the fear that NATO may respond to Moscow's actions by deploying similar nuclear weapons in Central and Eastern European countries. By doing so, the Kremlin could indirectly increase pressure on governments that support Ukraine, further complicating the geopolitical landscape. For instance, Hungary’s pro-Russian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, doesn’t hesitate to mention that providing Ukraine with weapons will lead to a nuclear war, and he could use any potential NATO response to Putin’s move as a proof of that. 

It is essential to recognize that Russia's actions may ultimately amount to nuclear blackmail, and they should be treated as such. The international community must be cautious and steadfast in its response, resisting the temptation to give in to intimidation tactics.

In the face of these challenges, it is crucial for Western democracies and their allies to maintain a united front and continue providing support for Ukraine. At the same time, they should work together to develop a coordinated strategy to counter Russia's attempts to exploit fears and manipulate the situation to its advantage.

A surprise for China

Adding to the complexity of the situation, the announcement about nukes in Belarus came only days after Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow. During his visit, Russia and China issued a joint statement against deploying nuclear weapons beyond national territories. The apparent contradiction between Moscow's actions and the joint statement calls into question the sincerity of the Russian-Chinese partnership.

The implications of Putin's duplicity toward China are significant and carry potential consequences for both regional and global security dynamics. Putin's actions may undermine the trust between Russia and China, potentially jeopardizing their strategic partnership. A weakened relationship between these two major powers could change the popular perception in the West that Russia is swiftly moving toward coalitioning with China against the NATO allies. It may appear that the Kremlin wants to play its own game, and that gives Western nations greater room for maneuver. 

At the same time, in response to Russia's actions, China may reevaluate its foreign policy position and recalibrate its approach to Russia's war in Ukraine — and to the broader geopolitical landscape. This could result in a more assertive or independent stance by China, further complicating efforts to address global security challenges.

As we are still to face the consequences of Putin's duplicity, unpredictability in international relations may rise. This uncertainty could exacerbate existing tensions and make it more difficult for nations to navigate complex geopolitical situations, increasing the risk of miscalculation and conflict.

That is why, while the U.S. Defense Department has stated that it does not believe Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons and has not adjusted its own strategic nuclear posture, it is essential that NATO and its allies remain vigilant. The commitment to collective defense must be unwavering. The consequences of failing to deter further aggression could be catastrophic.

In conclusion...

Maksym Skrypchenko is the president of the Transatlantic Dialogue Center. The views expressed are the author's own.