TALLINN, Estonia (AP) – Russia and Belarus signed a deal on to formally deploy Moscow’s tactical nuclear weapons on allied territory, but control of the weapons remains in the Kremlin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this year announced the use of short-range weapons in Belarus, a move widely seen as a warning to Western powers to step up military support for Ukraine.
It has not been announced when the weapons will be used, but Putin said the construction of the weapons storage facility in Belarus will be completed by July 1.
It is also unknown how many nuclear weapons remain in Belarus. Washington believes Russia has about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, including airborne bombs, short-range missile warheads and artillery shells. Tactical nuclear weapons are designed to destroy enemy forces and weapons on the battlefield. It has a relatively short range and a much lower explosive power than a nuclear warhead that can wipe out an entire city in a long-range strategic missile.
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko said in Moscow that “the movement of nuclear weapons has begun”, but it is not clear if any nuclear weapons have actually arrived in the country. Lukashenko canceled his Victory Day performance in Red Square on May 9, before reappearing in public on May 15, sparking rumors of a serious illness, but Putin , along with the leaders of Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, attended a meeting of the Eurasian Supreme Economic Council.
The signing of the agreement came at a time when Russia was preparing for a Ukrainian counteroffensive. Both Russian and Belarusian officials said the move was the result of hostilities from the West.
Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Kurenin said at a meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Minsk that “the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons is an effective response to the aggressive policies of countries unfriendly to our country.”
“In the context of an extremely sharp escalation of threats on the western borders of Russia and Belarus, a decision was made to take countermeasures in the military-nuclear sphere,” Shoigu added.
Russia and Belarus have an alliance agreement under which the Kremlin subsidizes the Belarusian economy, via loans and discounted Russian oil and gas. Russia used Belarusian territory as a staging ground for invading neighboring Ukraine and has maintained a contingent of troops and weapons there.