Russia is positioning nuclear bombs in Belarus as a warning to the West, President Vladimir Putin said Friday. Speaking at a forum in St Petersburg, the Russian leader told the West it couldn’t inflict a strategic defeat on Russia — a reference to a humiliating military defeat that could diminish Moscow’s power and influence on the world stage for decades.
The Russian leader didn’t say how many tactical nuclear weapons would be sent to Belarus, a close ally that borders three NATO member nations. But he said construction of facilities to store the weapons would be completed by 7-8 July and that the weapons would be deployed quickly after that. Russia used Belarus territory to send troops into Ukraine last February and has kept forces and equipment there, despite Western calls for Moscow to withdraw.
Putin says Moscow will retain control of the weapons it is placing in Belarus and that training Belarusian personnel to operate them will begin next month. He didn’t say how many of Russia’s 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads — including bombs that can be carried by aircraft and warheads for short-range missiles and artillery rounds — will be placed in Belarus. Still, the U.S. government estimates they will be enough to destroy the country and surrounding areas.
Russia has long argued that the weapons are needed to protect its interests in case of a conflict with the West. It is fulfilling its non-proliferation commitments by keeping them under its control. But the move could also entangle Russia in a broader conflict in Europe, with leading NATO countries supporting Ukraine’s counteroffensive to what Kyiv casts as an imperial-style land grab by Russia.
The nuclear weapons deployments in Belarus will help ensure that those weapons are within easy striking distance of the war zone in eastern Ukraine, where Russia has positioned tanks and troops in violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, Western officials say. It could also place them closer to NATO members such as Poland, which shares a border with Belarus.
Speaking at Russia’s flagship economic forum in St Petersburg, Putin said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had requested that the Soviet-era weapons be stored on his country’s soil as a deterrent against NATO. He said the weapons would be ready to use when needed. The Russian leader noted that Russia helped modernize Belarusian military aircraft last year to make them capable of carrying nuclear bombs. Ten such planes were already ready to go. The bombs can also be launched from the Iskander short-range missiles Russia provided to Belarus.
The move comes as the ongoing counteroffensive in Ukraine is hitting Russian troops more profound into the country, and a day after Lukashenko said the nuclear bombs in Belarus are three times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The Russian leader warned that using such weapons would engulf the entire region and “would mean the end of the present system of international relations.” He repeated his threat to impose sanctions on the West for arming Ukraine and not lifting the economic isolation it imposed on Russia.