Russia signs agreement to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus

TALLINN, Estonia – Russia and Belarus signed an agreement on Thursday formalizing the deployment of Moscow’s tactical nuclear weapons on their ally’s territory, though arms control remains with the Kremlin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the deployment of short-range weapons to Belarus earlier this year, in a move widely seen as a warning to the West as it stepped up military support for Ukraine.

It was not announced when the weapons would be deployed, but Putin has said construction of storage facilities in Belarus for them will be completed by July 1.

It is also unclear how many nuclear weapons would be kept in Belarus. The US government believes that Russia has around 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, including bombs that can be carried by aircraft, warheads for short-range missiles and artillery shells.

Tactical nuclear weapons are intended to destroy enemy troops and weapons on the battlefield. They have a relatively short range and a much lower yield than nuclear warheads mounted on long-range strategic missiles that are capable of destroying entire cities.

Speaking in Moscow, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that “the movement of nuclear weapons has started” but it was unclear whether any had actually reached his country. Lukashenko, who sparked rumors of being seriously ill when he interrupted a Victory Day appearance in Red Square on May 9 before reappearing in public on May 15, was attending a meeting of the Eurasian Supreme Economic Council with Putin and the leaders of Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. .

The signing of the agreement came as Russia was preparing for a counter-offensive by Ukraine. Both Russian and Belarusian officials also framed the move as prompted by hostilities from the West.

“The deployment of non-strategic nuclear weapons is an effective response to the aggressive policy of countries hostile to us,” Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin said in a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu in Minsk.

“Against the background 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.

Putin has argued that by deploying its tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, Russia was following the US lead, noting that the US has nuclear weapons in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.

Belarusian opposition leader in exile Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya condemned the move.

“We must do everything possible to prevent Putin’s plan to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus, as this will ensure Russia’s control over Belarus for years to come,” Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press. “This will further endanger the security of Ukraine and the whole of Europe.”

Independent Belarusian military analyst Aliaksandr Alesin said about two-thirds of Russia’s arsenal of medium-range nuclear missiles was in Belarus during the Cold War, adding that there are dozens of Soviet-era storage facilities that could still be used.

Soviet nuclear weapons stationed in Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan were transferred to Russia in a US-brokered deal after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

“The documents in Minsk on the return of nuclear weapons were defiantly signed just at the moment when Ukraine declared a counteroffensive and Western countries are handing weapons to Kiev,” Alesin told AP.

“This Belarusian nuclear balcony should spoil the spirits of politicians in the West, as nuclear missiles are capable of covering Ukraine, all of Poland, the Baltic states and parts of Germany.”

Khrenin also announced plans to “develop the combat potential of the regional grouping of Russia and Belarusian troops,” including the transfer to Minsk of the Iskander-M missile system, capable of carrying a nuclear charge, and the S-400 anti-aircraft gun. missile system

Russia and Belarus have an alliance agreement under which the Kremlin subsidizes the Belarusian economy through loans and discounts on Russian oil and gas. Russia used Belarusian territory as a stage to invade neighboring Ukraine and has maintained a contingent of troops and weapons there.