March 25 – Russia will deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday, sending a warning to NATO over its military support for Ukraine and an escalating standoff with the West.
Although not unexpected, and Putin said the move would not break nuclear non-proliferation pledges, it is one of Russia’s most significant nuclear signals since its invasion of Ukraine began 13 months ago.
The United States – the world’s other nuclear superpower – reacted cautiously to Putin’s announcement, with a senior administration official saying there was no sign Moscow planned to use its nuclear weapons.
Putin likened the plans to the US deploying its weapons in Europe and said Russia would not transfer control to Belarus. But it could be the first time since the mid-1990s that Russia has deployed such weapons outside the country.
“There is nothing unusual here either: first of all, the United States has been doing this for decades. It has long deployed its tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of its allied countries,” Putin told state television.
“We agreed to do the same – without violating our commitments, I emphasize, without violating our international non-proliferation obligations.”
Tensions have risen over the war in Ukraine after heavy shipments of Western weapons to Kiev and Moscow shifted its rhetoric about its military operation from “demilitarizing” its neighbor to fighting the “collective West” there.
Some hawkish Russian politicians and commentators have long speculated about nuclear strikes, arguing that Russia has the right to defend itself with nuclear weapons if pushed beyond its limits.
“Tactical” nuclear weapons refer to those used for specific gains on the battlefield, rather than those with the ability to obliterate cities. It is not clear how many such weapons Russia has, given that this is an area still shrouded in Cold War secrecy.
Experts told Reuters the development was significant because Russia has until now prided itself on not deploying nuclear weapons outside its borders, unlike the United States.
A senior US administration official noted that Russia and Belarus have been talking about transferring nuclear weapons for some time.
“We have seen no reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture or any indication that Russia is going to use a nuclear weapon. We remain committed to the collective defense of the NATO alliance,” the official said.
Putin did not specify when the weapons would be transferred to Belarus, which borders three NATO members – Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. He said Russia will complete construction of a storage facility there by July 1.
“It’s part of Putin’s game to try to intimidate NATO … because it has no military utility in Belarus, because Russia has so many of these weapons and forces in Russia,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Intelligence Project. in the Federation of American Scientists.
It was also unclear where in Belarus the weapons would be located. The move would expand Russia’s nuclear strike capability along NATO’s eastern border.
Although the Kremlin has never publicly confirmed it, the West has long claimed Russia maintains nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, its exclave on the Baltic Sea coast between NATO and European Union members Poland and Lithuania.
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons described Putin’s announcement as an extremely dangerous escalation.
“In the context of the war in Ukraine, the likelihood of miscalculation or misinterpretation is extremely high. Sharing nuclear weapons makes the situation much worse and risks catastrophic humanitarian consequences,” it said on Twitter.
Putin said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had long demanded the deployment. There was no immediate reaction from Lukashenko.
While the Belarusian military has not formally fought in Ukraine, Minsk and Moscow have close military ties. Last year, Minsk allowed Moscow to use Belarusian territory to send troops to Ukraine, and the two nations have stepped up joint military training.
“We are not transferring (weapons). And the US is not transferring (them) to its allies. We are basically doing the same thing they have been doing for ten years,” Putin said.
“They have allies in certain countries and train… their crews. We will do the same.”
Russia has stationed 10 aircraft capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, Putin said, adding that it has already transferred a number of Iskander tactical missile systems to Belarus, which can launch nuclear weapons.
“This is a very significant step,” said Nikolai Sokov, a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.
“Russia has always been very proud of not having any nuclear weapons outside of its territory. So now, yes, they’re changing that, and it’s a big change.”