June 7, 2023

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Russia is moving ahead with the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus

  • Russia signs an agreement with Belarus on the storage of nuclear weapons
  • The storage facility is scheduled to be completed by July 1
  • Russia deploys nuclear weapons in Belarus
  • Lukashenko says the arms are moving

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia moved forward on Thursday with a plan to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, whose leader said warheads were already on the move, in the Kremlin’s first deployment of such bombs outside Russia since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.

President Vladimir Putin said the United States and its allies are fighting an escalating proxy war against Russia after the Kremlin chief sent troops into Ukraine in February last year.

Putin announced the nuclear proliferation plan in an interview with state television on 25 March.

Putin’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said at a meeting with his Belarusian counterpart in Minsk that, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, “the collective West is waging an undeclared war against our countries.”

Shoigu said the West was doing everything it could to “prolong and escalate the armed conflict in Ukraine”.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said tactical nuclear weapons are indeed on their way after saying Putin signed an order, though there was no confirmation of this from the Kremlin itself.

Lukashenko told reporters, “The movement of nuclear weapons has already begun. Asked if the weapons are already in Belarus, he said: “It is likely. When I come back, I will check.”

Shoigu said the documents he was signing in Minsk related to the storage of tactical nuclear weapons at a private facility in Belarus.

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Putin has repeatedly warned that Russia, which has more nuclear weapons than any other country, will use all means to defend itself, describing the Ukraine war as a fight for Russia’s survival against an aggressive West.

The United States and its allies say they want Ukraine to defeat Russian forces on the battlefield but deny that they want Russia destroyed — and deny that the Ukraine war is in any way linked to NATO’s post-Soviet expansion.

It remains unclear exactly when Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons will be deployed in Belarus, which borders three NATO members – Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Russia will remain in control of the weapons.

Tactical nuclear weapons are nuclear weapons that are used for specific tactical gains on the battlefield and are therefore usually smaller in yield than strategic nuclear weapons designed to destroy the largest cities of the United States or Russia.

Russia has an enormous numerical superiority over the United States and NATO’s military when it comes to tactical nuclear weapons: the United States believes Russia has about 2,000 tactical warheads.

The United States has about 200 tactical nuclear weapons, half of them on bases in Europe. These 12-foot diameter B61 nuclear bombs, with different yields from 0.3 to 170 kilotons, have been deployed to six air bases across Italy, Germany, Turkey, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Shoigu said the Iskander-M missiles, which can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, have been delivered to the Belarusian Armed Forces, and some Su-25s have been converted for possible use in nuclear weapons.

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“The Belarusian soldiers have received the necessary training,” Shoigu was quoted as saying by the ministry. He said the two countries could take further measures to ensure their security.

“NATO’s military activities have become as aggressive as possible,” Shoigu said.

The United States has said the world faces the gravest nuclear threat since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis because of Putin’s remarks during the conflict in Ukraine, but Moscow says its position has been misinterpreted.

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, signed by the Soviet Union, states that no nuclear power can transfer nuclear weapons or technology to a non-nuclear power, but it does allow the weapons to be deployed outside its borders but under its control.

(Reporting by Jay Faulconbridge and Mark Trevelyan). Editing by Peter Graff and Hugh Lawson

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Jay Faulconbridge

Thomson Reuters

As Moscow bureau chief, Jay directs coverage of Russia and the CIS. Prior to Moscow, Jay ran coverage of Brexit as Head of the London Bureau (2012-2022). On the night of Brexit, his team scored one of Reuters’ historic victories – bringing the news of Brexit first to the world and financial markets. Jay graduated from the London School of Economics and started his career as an intern at Bloomberg. He has spent more than 14 years covering the former Soviet Union. He speaks Russian fluently. Contact: +44 782 521 8698