Russia and the U.S. clashed in the United Nations on Friday over Moscow’s plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, which neighboring Ukraine denounced as a desperate Kremlin attempt to avoid military defeat and “threaten the world with nuclear apocalypse.”
China, without naming Russia, made clear its opposition to the planned deployment.
Ukraine’s U.N. Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya called for the U.N. Security Council meeting following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement on March 25 that his country plans to deploy tactical, comparatively short-range and small-yield nuclear weapons in Belarus.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko upped the ante just before the council meeting, saying Russia might also deploy strategic nuclear weapons in Belarus, which Russian forces have used as a staging ground for the war in Ukraine.
Kyslytsya said it took only four days for Putin to violate a pledge he made to China’s President Xi Jinping in a joint statement at their recent meeting in Moscow. It declared that all nuclear states should refrain from deploying nuclear weapons outside their countries and withdraw those deployed abroad.
The same point was emphasized by the U.S. and Chinese deputy U.N. ambassadors, among others.
“We call for the abolition of the nuclear-sharing arrangements and advocate no deployment of nuclear weapons abroad by all nuclear weapons states, and the withdrawal of nuclear weapons deployed abroad," said Geng Shuang of China.
Calling nuclear weapons “the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads,” Geng reiterated that China opposes armed attacks against nuclear power plants and the threat or use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. He said "nuclear proliferation must be prevented and nuclear crisis avoided.”
Beijing claims to have a neutral stance in the war, but has also stressed its “no limits friendship” with Russia. It has refused to criticize Moscow’s invasion, and late last month released a peace plan calling for a cease-fire and talks between Ukraine and Russia.
Kyslytsya welcomed Beijing’s stand, telling the council: “To the credit of the Chinese side, the Chinese side reminded Moscow in a very sensible manner that nuclear war cannot be won and fought, and that nuclear proliferation must be prevented.”
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said Moscow is not transferring nuclear weapons but “operational tactical missile complexes,” which will be under Russian control. He insisted this was not in violation of Moscow’s international obligations.
Nebenzia accused the United States of destroying key arms control agreements and he repeated Putin's objection to the tactical nuclear weapons the U.S. has deployed in other NATO countries, indicating that this violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of global disarmament.
Belarus’ U.N. Ambassador Valentin Rybakov said the planned deployment of tactical nuclear weapons was a reaction to “the challenges and risks to national security” his country faces, citing NATO neighbors ramping up their military capacity and Western sanctions. He also criticized the U.S. nuclear sharing with its allies.
The U.S. deputy ambassador, Robert Wood, countered that the issue of nuclear sharing within NATO was discussed during negotiations on the NPT treaty, and for close to four decades Washington heard nothing about it from Russia until after its takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Wood stressed that any allegations that the United States is not in full compliance with the nonproliferation treaty “are just patently false.”
He accused Russia of “attempting to manipulate the specter of nuclear conflict” to help win the war in Ukraine.
“No other country is inflicting such damage on arms control nor seeking to undermine strategic stability in Europe,” Wood said. "No other country has raised the prospect of potential nuclear use in connection with the war in Ukraine. … No country is threatening Russia or threatening President Putin.”