Russia plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus, President Vladimir Putin said on state television on Saturday.
Moscow will complete construction of a special tactical nuclear weapons storage facility in Belarus by early July, Putin told state broadcaster Russia 24.
The Russian leader said Moscow had already transferred an Iskander short-range missile system – which can be fitted with nuclear or conventional warheads – to Belarus.
During the interview, Putin also said that Russia had helped Belarus convert 10 aircraft to make them capable of carrying tactical nuclear warheads. Russia will start training pilots to fly the reconfigured planes early next month, he added.
Key Context: The Belarusian government, located in western Russia on Ukraine’s long northern border, is among Moscow’s closest allies.
Belarus has had no nuclear weapons on its territory since the early 1990s. Shortly after gaining independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it agreed to transfer all weapons from Soviet-era mass destruction stationed there to Russia.
Belarus helped Russia launch its first invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, allowing Kremlin troops to enter the country from the north. Throughout the conflict, there were fears that Belarus could again be used as a launching pad for an offensive, or that Minsk’s own troops would join the conflict.
Global tensions: Although there is no guarantee that the Russian leader will follow through on his plan to station the weapons in Belarus, any nuclear signals from Putin will cause concern in the West.
Since invading Ukraine more than a year ago, Russia’s leader has repeatedly used growing rhetoric, warning of the ‘growing’ threat of nuclear war and suggesting that Moscow might abandon its policy of “non-use first”.
The United States has sought to impress on Putin the consequences of any use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, even low-yield tactical devices.
Speaking in October, US President Joe Biden told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “It would be irresponsible of me to talk about what we would or wouldn’t do,” in response to Russia’s use of nuclear power. .
But Biden hinted at the possibility of a rapid escalation of events.
“Mistakes are made, miscalculation can happen, no one can be sure what will happen and it could end in Armageddon,” he said.
CNN’s Peter Wilkinson, Frederik Pletigen, Zahra Ullah, Claudia Otto and Rob Picheta contributed.