Vladimir Putin has said Russia plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, marking Moscow’s latest attempt to use the threat of nuclear war to escalate tensions with the United States and NATO over the invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian president said work to build tactical nuclear weapons storage units in Belarus would be completed by July 1, a move he compared to US nuclear deployments in Europe.
But Cheese fries said Russia would not transfer control of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus or violate its nuclear non-proliferation obligations, the decision is one of the Kremlin’s most significant steps with its arsenal since it invaded Ukraine more than a year ago.
Putin said the deployment was in response to a long-standing request from Belarusian autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko, who allowed Russia to use the country as a launching pad for attacks on Ukraine, bringing his country deeper into the embrace of the Kremlin.
“There is nothing unusual here: first of all, the United States has been doing this for decades,” Putin said. “They have placed their tactical nuclear weapons in six different NATO allied countries in Europe. [ . . . ] we have agreed to do the same, without, I emphasize, violating our international non-proliferation obligations,” he added.
“They have [tactical nuclear weapons] in some countries, preparing delivery systems and training crews. We plan to do the same.
It was unclear when work began on nuclear storage facilities in Belarus or when Russia would deploy the weapons there. Putin said Russia has already equipped 10 Belarusian aircraft with the capability to carry tactical nuclear weapons. Russia will start training Belarusian forces on the Iskander missile complex, which can carry the tactical nuclear weapons, in April, Putin added.
Putin has regularly made veiled threats to use “every means at our disposal” to defend Russia’s territorial conquests and warn against Western support for the Ukrainian military.
In the fall, when nuclear tensions with the west were at their peak, Putin considered using a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, but ultimately decided it would give Russia no real advantage on the battlefield, according to people familiar with the matter.
Unlike strategic nuclear warheads – which are designed to be launched thousands of miles away at submarines, long-range bombers or intercontinental ballistic missiles, and can wipe out entire cities – tactical nuclear weapons carry a payload useful smaller to destroy targets in a specific area.
While the United States gave up all but 230 of its tactical nuclear warheads after the end of the Cold War, Russia still retains 2,000 and can deploy them from some conventional systems, such as the Iskander missile complex.
The Russian president said he made the decision after the UK announced earlier this week that it had supplied anti-tank shells containing depleted uranium to Ukraine, a decision he presented as part of a nuclear escalation of the conflict.
Both the United States and the United Kingdom have dismissed Putin’s claim, saying the cartridges – which are denser than lead and prized for their armor-piercing abilities – have only conventional uses.
US National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said the United States had seen no signs that Russia was moving towards using a nuclear weapon.
“We have seen no reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture or any indication that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon,” Watson said.
She added: “We remain committed to the collective defense of the NATO alliance.”
A US official said Putin’s announcement could be a political signal in response to Freedom Day in Belarus, which is marked by the country’s opposition. On Friday, the United States imposed sanctions and visa bans on Belarusian officials and others to recognize the holiday.