Ukraine’s top security official has denounced the Kremlin’s plans to station tactical atomic weapons in Belarus, saying that Russia was taking its ally as a “nuclear hostage”.
But Moscow said it was making the move in response to the West’s increasing military support for Ukraine.
Russian president Vladimir Putin announced the plan in a television interview that aired on Saturday, saying it was triggered by a UK decision this past week to provide Ukraine with armour-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium.
Mr Putin argued that by deploying its tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, Russia was following the lead of the US. He noted that Washington had nuclear weapons based in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.
“We are doing what they have been doing for decades, stationing them in certain allied countries, preparing the launch platforms and training their crews,” he said.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, tweeted on Sunday that Mr Putin’s announcement was “a step towards internal destabilisation” of Belarus that maximised “the level of negative perception and public rejection” of Russia and Mr Putin in Belarusian society. The Kremlin, Mr Danilov added, “took Belarus as a nuclear hostage”.
Mr Putin argued on Saturday that Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko had long asked to have nuclear weapons in his country again to counter Nato.
Belarus shares borders with three Nato members — Latvia, Lithuania and Poland — and Russia used Belarusian territory as a staging ground to send troops into neighbouring Ukraine on February 24 2022.
Both Mr Lukashenko’s support of the war and Mr Putin’s plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus have been denounced by the Belarusian opposition.
Tactical nuclear weapons are intended for use on the battlefield and have a short range and a low yield compared with much more powerful nuclear warheads fitted to long-range missiles.
Russia plans to maintain control over the ones it sends to Belarus, and construction of storage facilities for them would be completed by July 1, Mr Putin said.
Russia has stored its tactical nuclear weapons at dedicated depots on its territory, and moving part of the arsenal to a storage facility in Belarus would up the ante in the Ukrainian conflict by placing them closer to Russian aircraft and missiles already stationed there.
The US said it would “monitor the implications” of Mr Putin’s announcement.
So far, Washington had not seen “any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon”, National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said.
In Germany, the foreign ministry called it a “further attempt at nuclear intimidation”, German news agency dpa reported late on Saturday.
The ministry went on to say that “the comparison drawn by President Putin to Nato’s nuclear participation is misleading and cannot be used to justify the step announced by Russia.”