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Putin Says Moscow To Station Nuclear Weapons In Belarus, First Time Since 1990s

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko during a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia February 17, 2023. Sputnik/Vladimir Astapkovich/Kremlin via REUTERS
Reuters

Russia will station tactical nuclear weapons in neighbouring Belarus, President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday, marking the first time since the mid-1990s that Moscow will have based such arms outside the country.

Putin made the announcement at a time of growing tensions with the West over the Ukraine war and as some Russian commentators speculate about possible nuclear strikes.

“Tactical” nuclear weapons refer to those used for specific gains in the battlefield rather than those with the capacity to wipe out cities. It is unclear how many such weapons Russia has, given it is an area still shrouded in traditions of Cold War secrecy.

Experts told Reuters the development was significant, since Russia had until now been proud that unlike the United States, it did not deploy nuclear weapons outside its borders.

Belarus has borders with three NATO members – Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

“This is part of Putin’s game to try to intimidate NATO … because there is no military utility from doing this in Belarus as Russia has so many of these weapons and forces inside Russia,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists.

Putin told state television that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had long raised the issue of stationing tactical nuclear weapons in his country.

“There is nothing unusual here either: firstly, the United States has been doing this for decades. They have long deployed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allied countries,” he said.

“We agreed that we will do the same – without violating our obligations, I emphasize, without violating our international obligations on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.”

Putin did not specify when the weapons would be transferred to Belarus.

Russia will have completed the construction of a storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus by July 1.

“We are not handing over (the weapons). And the U.S. does not hand (them) over to its allies. We’re basically doing the same thing they’ve been doing for a decade,” Putin said.

“They have allies in certain countries and they train … their crews. We are going to do the same thing.”

The U.S. State Department and the Pentagon did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

Russia has stationed 10 aircraft in Belarus capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons, Putin said, adding that Moscow had already transferred to Belarus a number of Iskander tactical missile systems that can launch nuclear weapons.

“It’s a very significant move,” said Nikolai Sokol, a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. “Russia had always been very proud that it had no nuclear weapons outside its territory. So, now, yes, they are changing that and it’s a big change.”

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, nuclear weapons were deployed in the four newly-independent states of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

In May 1992, the four states agreed all the weapons should be based in Russia and the transfer of warheads from Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan was completed in 1996.