It doesn’t get more reckless and incendiary than this. Russian President Vladimir Putin is stationing nuclear weapons in his neighboring vassal state of Belarus in July, right as the 31 NATO allies meet next door in Lithuania for their annual shindig. That rattle of his nuclear sabers will be the latest of many since he attacked Ukraine last year. NATO cannot leave this escalation unanswered. The question isn’t whether to respond, but how.
Putin’s timing says it all. He first announced his intention of arming Belarus with Russian nukes in March. This month he told his pet dictator in Minsk, Alexander Lukashenko, that preparations would be complete by July 8, and that the warheads would show up right after that. This week, he said the first ones have already arrived. The NATO summit in Vilnius will take place on July 11-12.
No doubt Putin’s intention is to strut his nuclear stuff to overshadow and mock a NATO gathering where he and his war of aggression will be, one way or another, the only topic. Putin is why NATO will raise its target for military spending; why it’ll lock arms with its newest member, Finland; why it’ll embrace Sweden as the aspiring 32nd; and why it’ll discuss whether and how to embrace Ukraine into its fold.
Putin and Lukashenko want to interrupt and spoil that show of unity and resolve. Lukashenko’s role in this game is minor, but despicable. Last week, he boasted that these warheads are “three times more powerful” than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that he wouldn’t hesitate to tell Putin to drop them. He neglected to add that Putin wouldn’t consult him in any case.
This movement of warheads so close to NATO is meant as an act of psychological terrorism. There’s long been speculation in the West that Putin may already have nukes in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave that’s wedged between Poland and Lithuania and thus geographically inside of NATO’s territory. Bringing atom bombs to nearby Belarus would remove that residual ambiguity. All of NATO’s eastern members, and even those in central Europe, would be in Putin’s crosshairs.
Putin seems to relish the historic irony. In the 1990s — after the Cold War, when Europe and the world were hoping to enter a new and more irenic age — the former Soviet Republics of Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan voluntarily surrendered their nuclear arsenals to Russia in the name of non-proliferation. In return, they received security guarantees from Russia, as well as from the US and the UK. So much for Russian promises.
Putin’s positioning of the warheads, like his invasion of Ukraine, therefore marks the breach and reversal of that understanding in the 1990s. He has willfully brought not only war but also the nuclear arms race back to Europe. He did so, first, by threatening to use nukes; second, by suspending Russia’s participation in New START, the last remaining arms control treaty between Moscow and Washington; and now by moving these diabolical weapons into Belarus.
By contrast, NATO has shrunk its nuclear presence in Europe since the Cold War. In the early 1970s, the US kept about 7,000 nukes in Europe. Nowadays, it’s estimated to have only about 100 there. Those warheads are stored at six bases in five allied countries that were already NATO members during the Cold War — Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey — and it is their jets that would scramble and drop the weapons. (Two other NATO members, the UK and France, maintain their own atomic arsenals.)
Putin’s aggression makes that restraint from the Western alliance obsolete. In Vilnius, the NATO allies are already slated to shift their conventional (meaning non-nuclear) strategy from “retaliation” to “denial.” The former means that the alliance, in a desire not to provoke the Kremlin, has so far kept most of its forces in the rear, on the understanding that it’ll only send those troops to reconquer NATO allies like Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania if they were overrun by Russia. The latter means that in the future, NATO forces will stop the Russian invaders right as they step over the first allied country’s border.
By the same token, the US and its allies should also answer Putin’s nuclear provocation with the old but proven logic of deterrence. In the 1980s, NATO stationed US missiles in West Germany, not to escalate, but to get Moscow to stop doing so. If Putin now places nukes in Belarus, America should move some of its warheads to the eastern NATO countries that feel most threatened — that is, Poland and the Baltic states.
From the atrocities of Bucha to the mass deportations of Ukrainian children and — to all appearances — the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam, Putin has brought hell to a neighboring country that didn’t threaten him, along with lies and cynicism to his own people and the world. If there is any way to stop him, it is with iron will — and, if necessary, nuclear resolve.