Bringing Belarus Back to the Table

Miles Pomper
September 20, 2011

Bringing Belarus Back to the Table: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Source:

Despite expressed readiness in 2010 to discuss with Washington the repatriation of Soviet-origin HEU, on August 19, 2011, Belarus announced that it would not proceed with a promised shipment of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to Russia, arguing that the action was in retaliation for sanctions that the United States had recently imposed on Minsk.

Notwithstanding strong international criticism and pressure, Belarus has insisted that it would only proceed with the shipment of HEU to Russia after the sanctions against it were removed. The sanctions against Belarus were issued in response to the crackdown by President Alexander Lukashenko on his political opponents, as well as Belarus’ ties with Iran. Reneging also reflected shifts in Minsk’s perception of the need to improve ties with the West since December 2010, when Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov signed a joint statement with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to “eliminate all of its stocks” of HEU before the March 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul.

Although some 85kg of Soviet-origin HEU were removed from Belarus in the weeks leading up to the December 2010 joint statement, nearly 100 kg (220 pounds) of fresh HEU still remain at Sosny, including 40 kg (88 pounds) of material enriched to 90 percent—enough fissile material for one or two nuclear weapons.

At the time of the joint statement, US officials anticipated that the shipments of the remaining HEU would take place in early 2012. In return, the United States promised to “provide technical and financial assistance to support the completion of this effort as expeditiously as possible,” and South Korea indicated that it would be willing to invite Belarus to the summit if Minsk met its commitment.

Obama administration officials have insisted that the HEU issues and the sanctions concerns should be dealt with separately. But President Lukashenko shows little inclination to surrender the leverage he believes the HEU provides him in dealings with Washington.

Despite the entrenching of positions, there are some other options that Washington and the international community could consider to break the deadlock without linking the HEU issue to concerns outside the nuclear arena.

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