Moscow will begin deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus when the necessary special storage facilities in the former Soviet republic are completed early next month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on June 9.
The announcement follows several months after Putin first described plans to move tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus in March, pointing to U.S. deployment of similar weaponry at NATO bases in a number of European countries over many decades.
Belarus's longtime authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, recently described the development as a unique chance for Minsk and Moscow to unite. Belarus, along with Kazakhstan and Ukraine, relinquished its nuclear weapons to Russia in the 1990s in exchange for security guarantees.
"Everything is proceeding as planned," Putin said in televised remarks about his meeting with Lukashenko at his Bocharov Ruchey resort in Sochi on Russia's Black Sea coast.
"Preparations of the relevant facilities will be completed on July 7 or 8, and we will immediately begin the activities related to the deployment of the corresponding types of weapons on your territory."
If everything goes as planned, the deployment will mark the first time that Russian tactical nuclear weapons are placed outside Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
Tactical nuclear weapons are envisioned as a means of delivering the destructive power of a nuclear weapon in a relatively limited battlefield space. These weapons are usually smaller in yield than the strategic nuclear weapons designed to destroy entire cities during the Cold War.
Lukashenko, a staunch ally of Putin who has been in power for nearly three decades, has relied on Moscow's political and economic support to survive months of protests, mass arrests, and Western sanctions following an election in 2020 that kept him in power but was widely seen at home and abroad as rigged.
"It is very simple: join in the Union State of Belarus and Russia," he said during an interview on Kremlin state television on May 28. "There will be nuclear weapons for everyone."
Military EscalationAs the war in Eastern Europe between Ukraine and Russia continues to rage after more than 15 months, Putin has repeatedly raised issues with the United States and other Western nations pumping arms into Kyiv as part of an expanding proxy war aimed at bringing Russia to its knees.
Putin casts the war as a battle for Russia's own survival in the face of what he describes as an ever-expanding NATO while warning the West that Moscow won't back down. He also expressed concern about the United States deploying B61 tactical nuclear warheads at NATO bases in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Turkey. Moscow is also unhappy about a reported upgrade of the B61, which was first tested in Nevada shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The United States has criticized Russia's nuclear expansion to its neighboring ally but has said that it has no intention of altering its position on strategic nuclear weapons and also that it hasn't seen any signs that Russia was preparing to use a nuclear weapon.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a press conference in May that the Biden administration is aware of the Russia–Belarus arrangement and "will continue to monitor, certainly, the implications here."
"This is yet another example of [Putin] making irresponsible and provocative choices," she said. "We remain committed to a collective defense of the NATO alliance, and I’ll just leave it there."
"NATO allies act with full respect of their international commitments," she said. "Russia has consistently broken its arms control commitments."
The war in Ukraine has triggered what both Moscow and Washington say is the deepest crisis in relations since the depths of the Cold War, with major nuclear arms control treaties unraveling and both sides denouncing each other in public.