President Vladimir Putin said Russia is preparing to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus, escalating a confrontation with the US and its allies over the war in Ukraine.
Moscow isn’t handing control of the weapons to Belarus, and won’t be in breach of its non-proliferation obligations under an agreement with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Putin said in comments broadcast on state television Saturday.
The US has “long deployed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allied countries,” he said.
Ten aircraft capable of carrying nuclear warheads have already been prepared in Belarus, and storage facilities for the weapons will be completed by July 1, Putin said, without indicating when Russia would send the arms to its ally’s territory.
Iskander short-range missiles — capable of carrying nuclear warheads — had also been sent to Belarus, and training for crews would begin there on April 3, Putin said.
The decision comes as the Kremlin braces for an expected Ukrainian military offensive, after Russian forces failed to make a breakthrough in months of fighting in eastern Ukraine. Russia has dialed back its own plans for a further advance and is seeking to sign up as many as 400,000 contract soldiers to rebuild its ranks as it digs in for a long campaign.
Russia has repeatedly resorted to nuclear saber-rattling as the more-than-yearlong invasion of Ukraine increasingly faltered, prompting condemnation from the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping also signaled to Putin last year that nuclear threats are a red line for him, even as Beijing has offered public backing for Russia’s security concerns in the conflict.
Putin last month announced Russia was suspending participation in the New START nuclear arms treaty with the US, the last accord limiting their strategic stockpiles. US President Joe Biden called that a “big mistake.”
The Kremlin hasn’t publicly declared that any of Russia’s nuclear arsenal is based in other countries since the Soviet Union’s collapse, when Ukraine and Kazakhstan surrendered stockpiles of weapons on their territories. During the Cold War, NATO and the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact group stationed nuclear weapons in Europe.
Putin said the agreement to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus followed a UK junior defense minister’s disclosure that Britain would send shells made with depleted uranium to Ukraine. Still, he said, Lukashenko had long urged him to station Russian nuclear weapons in his country.
“All our agreements will take place in the very near future,” Putin said.
Depleted-uranium munitions don’t cause a nuclear explosion but use the metal’s high density to penetrate armor. Putin this week threatened to respond if the UK went ahead with deliveries.
The US and other NATO states are delivering large volumes of weapons to Ukraine that pose “a threat” to Russia, Putin said. Russia has “hundreds of thousands” of shells that include depleted uranium though it hasn’t used them yet, he said.
While Ukraine’s allies are ramping up production of arms and munitions, Russia’s defense output is developing very fast and “will produce three times more ammunition” and tanks than Ukraine’s backers will supply, Putin said.