Satellite images reveal where Russian nuclear weapons may be stored in Belarus

These new security features and other improvements at an ammunition depot in central Belarus reveal that Russia is building facilities there that could house nuclear warheads. If Russia moves weapons there, it would be the first time it has stored them outside the country since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Russia already has nuclear warheads on its territory near Ukraine and NATO countries, but by placing some in Belarus, the Kremlin appears to be trying to heighten its nuclear threat and strengthen its nuclear deterrent.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin referenced such a site early last year, saying that Russia would soon complete construction of a “special repository for tactical nuclear weapons” in Belarus.

The New York Times analyzed satellite images and photos and spoke to nuclear weapons and arms control experts to track the new construction, which began in March 2023.

The site is located 120 miles north of the Ukrainian border, in a military depot near the town of Asipovichy. Some of the newly built facilities have unique features for nuclear storage facilities on bases within Russia. For example, a new highly secure area is surrounded by three layers of fencing, in addition to the existing base-wide security perimeter. Another telltale sign is a covered loading area connected to what appears to be a hidden Soviet-era underground bunker.

Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, who analyzed the site, said nuclear developments in Belarus “appear designed to unnerve NATO's easternmost member states, but will not give Russia a significant new military advantage in the region.”

There is no consensus definition of a tactical nuclear weapon, as opposed to long-range strategic weapons. But Russia defines tactical weapons as those with a range of up to 300 kilometers, about 186 miles. Since the nuclear programs are so secret, it is possible that there are other locations in Belarus where Russia is storing warheads – and the Kremlin may even have moved some to the Asipovichy location, although all indications suggest otherwise. Both the Russian and Belarusian Defense Ministries did not respond to requests for comment.

Nuclear warheads are generally stored near military bases with the capacity to transport the weapons. The alleged nuclear storage site is located in the same city as Belarusian Iskander missiles, which can be used to launch nuclear or conventional warheads. Russia handed over the Iskanders to Belarus in 2022.

Last week, both Russia and Belarus issued statements on nuclear weapons exercises. The Kremlin said on Monday it would hold military exercises with troops based near Ukraine to train for the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons. Belarus' defense minister told state media on Tuesday that an inspection of Iskander forces and other nuclear weapons delivery systems had begun.

Russia's comments immediately prompted condemnation from the United States and NATO for “irresponsible rhetoric.”

“We're reviving Cold War practices, so we're reviving Cold War risks,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.

In 2023, when new fences were built to create an area of ​​greater security at the Asipovichy base, a covered area was renovated, including a loading dock for trucks which now has a new roof, protecting any activity from surveillance from above. These renovations are consistent with facilities seen at other former Soviet nuclear storage sites. Below, a corresponding dock in Hungary contains an internal entrance to an old, tree-covered underground bunker.

William Moon, an independent consultant and former official at the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency, told the Times that the design of Asipovichy's upgrades, with triple fencing, a main entrance and an emergency exit, resemble warhead storage sites Russian nuclear weapons he has seen. in person. Mr Moon, who has worked on nuclear warhead security with Russia, said: “When we were working with their standards, they would have required that third-level fence.”

He said that in addition to increased security, he would also expect separate quarters for the Russian military unit that maintains control of the nuclear warheads. Three new buildings, which appear to be for administrative use or barracks, have been set up in the entrance area of ​​the depot, and a further area is currently being demolished.

At the entrance to the triple-fenced zone, a security checkpoint – a covered inspection area next to a guardhouse – was added in 2023. These types of facilities have become a fixture over the past two decades at nuclear sites inside Russia, according to Michael Duitsman. , a colleague of Mr. Lewis at the Middlebury Institute. They are a “unique feature not seen in other Russian bases,” he said.

Construction work has begun on what could be new buildings in recent weeks. “The details are still uncertain, but construction has clearly entered a new phase,” Kristensen said.

An air defense system was also installed to protect the site. It was initially spotted camouflaged in mid-2023, including through radar satellite images provided by the Umbra space company. Since September one of the air defense vehicles has been deployed in a field about a mile from the bunker.

Asipovichy is part of the history of nuclear power. The same site Russia is building today was likely used to store nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The Soviet Union began basing nuclear missile brigades in and around the city in the 1960s, according to William Alberque, who was director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank and a Pentagon and NATO official. He also deployed a military unit that handled nuclear weapons to an artillery ammunition storage site, he said. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, all nuclear weapons were removed from Belarus.

Declassified US intelligence satellite photos of the Asipovichy site, taken during the Cold War, appear to show these two features. The southern section was thought to be reserved for conventional weapons, with clearings and many storage buildings. In a separate, tree-covered northern section, four bunkers are visible, with a walled complex further north, the exact spot where the current construction can be seen.

Although the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states, it does not prohibit the stockpiling of nuclear weapons abroad if control is maintained by the country that possesses them. Under the NATO nuclear sharing agreement, the United States currently has nuclear weapons in some member countries.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson would not say whether the United States was monitoring any particular sites in Belarus, but said the department was keeping an eye on the situation to “ensure that Russia maintains control of its weapons in case of any deployment to Belarus.” Belarus and respects its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.” An April 2024 State Department report stated that the United States would not change its nuclear posture in response to developments in Belarus.

Julian E. Barnes contributed to the reporting. Phil Robibero, Black Migliozzi, Davide Botti AND Alessandro Cardia contributed to the visual production.

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