The United Nations disarmament chief warned Friday that the risk of a nuclear weapon being used is higher now than at any other time since the Cold War.
“The war in Ukraine represents the most acute example of that risk,” High Representative for Disarmament Izumi Nakamitsu told a Security Council meeting.
The meeting was requested by Ukraine, and supported by the United States and Albania, to discuss Russia’s March 25 announcement that it plans to station tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory.
“When it comes to issues related to nuclear weapons, I wish to be clear at the outset: All states must avoid taking any actions that could lead to escalation, mistake or miscalculation,” she said.
Nakamitsu added that all parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons – nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states – should strictly adhere to their commitments and obligations under the treaty.
Nakamitsu urged states to return to dialogue and de-escalate tensions, and she appealed specifically to Russia and the United States to return to full implementation of the New START Treaty, a major arms control pact between the two powers.
Russia said last month it would no longer comply with New START, and it announced this week that it would stop sharing nuclear weapons data twice a year. Washington said it would withhold its nuclear data in an effort to encourage Moscow to return to compliance with the treaty.
At the council meeting, the two envoys verbally sparred over who had violated or withdrawn first from a number of arms control treaties.
On the issue of Russia’s planned deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, the U.S. envoy urged Moscow to reconsider.
“Russia should immediately cease escalatory rhetoric around the use of nuclear weapons,” Ambassador Robert Wood said. “Any use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Ukraine would have severe consequences for the maintenance of international peace and security and would fundamentally change the nature of this war.”
He also urged Belarus to cease its complicity with Russia’s invasion. Russia staged part of its invasion of Ukraine from Belarus.
Russia’s envoy said Moscow is not violating its international non-proliferation obligations.
“President Putin was clear about the fact that we are not transferring nuclear weapons,” Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said. “We are talking about the transfer to Belarus of operational, tactical missile complexes, Iskander-M missiles. We are talking about the retrofitting of airplanes at the Belarusian airport and the training of teams and the construction of a special storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus — and all this will be under Russian control.”
Nebenzia claimed Moscow is stationing the weapons in Belarus to protect its ally from Western threats, as the West sends more weapons to Ukraine.
Just days after Moscow’s February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine, a referendum in Belarus approved a new constitution ending its non-nuclear-state status, paving the way for the Kremlin to move tactical nuclear weapons there.
“Belarus is not prepared to attack anyone first, but rather is responding appropriately using all existing capacity — responding to any foreign aggression,” Ambassador Valentin Rybakov told the meeting. “This cooperation between Russia and Belarus is nothing new.”
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya denounced the move.
“Belarus is not a Russian military base — it's an independent country of free people. We can't let Lukashenka turn our country into a nuclear wasteland,” she said on Twitter Friday about President Alexander Lukashenko.
Council members expressed concern about the proliferation of nuclear weapons and said regressing on nuclear commitments must stop.
“Backsliding in disarmament must stop before it renders the NPT a dead letter,” Brazilian Ambassador Ronaldo Costa Filho warned of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.