March 25 (Reuters) – Russia will station tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus, President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday, the first time Moscow has based such weapons outside the country since the mid-1990s.
Putin made the announcement amid rising tensions with the West over the war in Ukraine and some Russian commentators speculating about the possibility of nuclear strikes.
“Tactical” nuclear weapons refer to their use for specific gains on the battlefield rather than their ability to destroy cities. It’s not clear how many such weapons Russia has, as its Cold War covert legacy is still shrouded in mystery.
Experts told Reuters the development was significant because, unlike the United States, Russia has so far prided itself on not deploying nuclear weapons outside its borders.
Belarus shares borders with three NATO members – Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
“It’s part of Putin’s game to try to intimidate NATO … because there are so many weapons and forces inside Russia that there is no military utility from doing this in Belarus,” said Hans Christensen, director of the Nuclear Information Program. In Association of American Scientists.
Putin told state television that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had long raised the issue of deploying tactical nuclear weapons in his country.
“There is nothing unusual here: first of all, the US has been doing this for decades. They have deployed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allies for a long time,” he said.
“We have agreed that we will do the same – without violating our obligations, without violating our international obligations, I stress, in non-proliferation.”
Putin did not specify when the weapons would be transferred to Belarus.
By July 1, Russia will have completed building a storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.
“We are not handing over (weapons). And the US is not handing over (them) to its allies. We are basically doing what they have been doing for a decade,” Putin said.
“They have partners in some countries that are training … their crews. We’re going to do the same thing.”
The US State Department and the Pentagon did not immediately return messages for comment.
Russia has grounded 10 aircraft capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, and Putin said Moscow had already transferred several Iskander tactical missile systems capable of launching nuclear weapons to Belarus.
“This is a very significant step,” said Nikolai Sokol, a senior fellow at Vienna’s Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. “Russia has always prided itself on not having nuclear weapons outside its borders. So, now, yes, they’re changing that, and it’s a big change.”
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, nuclear weapons were used in all four newly independent countries: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
In May 1992, the four states agreed that all weapons should remain in Russia, and the transfer of warships from Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan was completed in 1996.
(Reporting by Matthew Lewis and Deepa Babington) David Lungren in Ottawa, Guy Falconbridge in London and Raphael Sater in Washington
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