Russia has started moving tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, which has sparked condemnation from NATO and concern from Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the decision on March 25, saying it responded to the US and NATO deploying nuclear weapons in Europe. He said the move would not violate nuclear non-proliferation agreements and that Moscow would retain control of its arms in Belarus.
“From April 3, we start crew training, and on July 1, we are finishing the construction of a special repository for tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus,” Putin said, according to Russian state media.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg criticized Putin’s “nuclear rhetoric” as “dangerous and irresponsible” and said it would not change NATO’s posture or deterrence.
“We have not seen any changes in Russia’s nuclear posture that would lead us to adjust our own,” Stoltenberg said in a statement on March 26.
Ukrainian officials also reacted to Putin’s announcement, portraying it as a sign of weakness and fear after Russia suffered setbacks on the battlefield against Ukrainian forces.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, wrote on Twitter: “He admits that he is afraid of losing & all he can do is scare with tactics.”
The deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus comes amid a tense standoff between Russia and Ukraine over the fate of the Donbas region, where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting against the Ukrainian government since 2014.
Russia has amassed over 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border and accused NATO of provoking a conflict by supporting Ukraine. NATO has denied any plans to intervene militarily and has called on Russia to de-escalate and respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Some analysts have suggested that Putin’s decision to station nuclear weapons in Belarus aims to deter NATO from intervening in Ukraine and reaffirming his commitment to the war.
“This is Putin’s way of saying he has more at stake in Ukraine than NATO does,” Heather Williams, director of the Project on Nuclear Issues for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an email.
Belarus is a close ally of Russia and has been facing international isolation and sanctions since a disputed presidential election 2020 that sparked mass protests against authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko has sought to strengthen his ties with Putin and has accused Western countries of plotting a coup against him. He has also supported Russia’s position on Ukraine and has hosted joint military exercises with Russian forces.
Belarus is the first country outside Russia to host Russian nuclear weapons since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia has long-range nuclear weapons that can reach any global target, but tactical nuclear weapons are smaller and have shorter ranges. They are designed to be used on the battlefield rather than against cities or strategic targets.