Ukraine and NATO countries condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to deploy “tactical” nuclear weapons in neighboring ally Belarus.
During a televised interview on March 25, 2023, Putin said: “There is nothing unusual here: the United States has been doing this for decades. They have long been deploying their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allies.”
The Russian president referred to the arrangements, known as NATO nuclear sharing, that were negotiated secretly during the Cold War and were meant for a quicker response to any nuclear threat coming from the Soviet Union.
Hundreds of US B61 nuclear gravity bombs are stored in several bases across Europe, namely in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and in Turkey.
It is not the first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that the Kremlin has alluded to such a plan.
On June 25, 2022, in a meeting in St. Petersburg, Putin said Russia could supply Belarus with nuclear weapons in response to what he described as “aggressive” policies by neighboring Lithuania and Poland.
On August 26, 2022, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko even claimed that his country’s air force had aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Putin has now confirmed the information in his recent address.
“We have already helped our Belarusian colleagues and equipped their aircraft, aircraft of the Belarusian Air Force,” the president said. “10 aircraft are ready for the use of this type of weapon.”
The only aircraft in active Belarusian inventory which is theoretically capable of carrying nuclear weapons is the Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter jet. 12 aircraft were ordered in June 2017.
“From April 3, we start training the crews. And on July 1, we will complete the construction of a special warehouse for tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus,” Putin concluded.
NATO: “Russia’s nuclear rhetoric is dangerous and irresponsible”
The announcement caused a strong reaction among Ukraine and its NATO allies.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry has called for an emergency meeting of the United Nation Security Council to counter what it defined as Russia’s “nuclear blackmail”.
“Ukraine expects effective actions to counteract the Kremlin’s nuclear blackmail from the United Kingdom, China, the United States, and France,” the ministry said. “We demand that an extraordinary meeting of the UN Security Council be immediately convened for this purpose.”
“Russia’s reference to NATO’s nuclear sharing is totally misleading,” NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said in a statement. “NATO allies act with full respect of their international commitments […] Russia has consistently broken its arms control commitments.”
In February 2023, President Vladimir Putin announced Russia would be suspending its participation in the New START, a treaty that limits its deployed nuclear arsenal and strategic bomber fleet.
The European Union threatened Belarus with additional sanctions if it were to store Russia’s nuclear weapons on its territory.
“Belarus hosting Russian nuclear weapons would mean an irresponsible escalation & threat to European security,” Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said on Twitter. “Belarus can still stop it, it is their choice. The EU stands ready to respond with further sanctions.”
The United States said it had no indication so far that Russia transferred nuclear weapons to Belarus.
“We have not seen any indication that he’s made good on this pledge or moved any nuclear weapons around,” John Kirby, National Security Council spokesperson, told CBS News. “As we monitor this, […] we’ve seen nothing that would cause us to change our own strategic deterrent posture.”