Russia plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus in warning to the West
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans on Saturday to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus, a warning to the West as it steps up military support for Ukraine. Russia plans to maintain control over those it sends to Belarus, and construction of storage facilities for them will be completed by July 1, Putin said. He didn’t say how many nuclear weapons Russia would keep in Belarus. The U.S. government believes Russia has about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, which include bombs that can be carried by tactical aircraft, warheads for short-range missiles and artillery rounds.
The reason for the plan
Putin said the move was triggered by Britain’s decision this past week to provide Ukraine with armor-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium.
What are tactical nuclear weapons
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.
Comparison with the US
Putin argued that by deploying its tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, Russia was following the lead of the United States, noting that the U.S. has nuclear weapons based in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.
Putin said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has long asked to have nuclear weapons in his country again as a counter to NATO. Belarus shares borders with three NATO members — Latvia, Lithuania and Poland — and Russia used its territory as a staging ground to send troops into neighboring Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.
Response from the US
The U.S. said it would “monitor the implications” of Putin’s announcement. “We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture nor any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said. “We remain committed to the collective defense of the NATO alliance.”
The danger of depleted uranium ammunition
Putin had initially objected to the depleted uranium rounds that Britain promised to ship to Ukraine by making the false claim that they have nuclear components. He subsequently toned down his language, but insisted Saturday that the ammunition posed an additional danger to both troops and civilians in Ukraine by leaving a radioactive trace and contaminating agricultural land. “Those weapons are harmful not just for combatants, but also for the people living in those territories and for the environment,” he said.
Belarus opposition leader’s response
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is living in exile, said the agreement to transfer the tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus “underlines the threat to regional security” from Lukashenko’s regime. “Europe won’t be safe until Belarus dictator is removed & brought before tribunal to face justice for crimes against our country & Ukraine,” Tsikhanouskaya wrote in English on Twitter.
The deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus is a significant escalation in tensions between Russia and the West, and a worrying development in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. It remains to be seen how the US and NATO will respond to this latest move from Putin.