White House remains cautious, says it would 'monitor implications' of plan
Russia will deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday, sending a warning to NATO over its military support to Ukraine and escalating a standoff with the West.
Putin said the move was triggered by the United Kingdom's decision this past week to provide Ukraine with armor-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium.
He said Russia's move would not violate nuclear nonproliferation promises. But it is one of Moscow's most pronounced nuclear signals since the beginning of its special military operation in Ukraine 13 months ago, Reuters commented.
The United States — the world's other nuclear superpower — has reacted cautiously to Putin's statement, with a senior official saying there were no signs Moscow planned to use its nuclear weapons.
Putin likened his plans to the US stationing its weapons in Europe and said that Russia would not be transferring control to Belarus.
"There is nothing unusual here either: First, the US has been doing this for decades. They have long deployed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allied countries," Putin told state television.
"We agreed that we will do the same — without violating our obligations, I emphasize, without violating our international obligations on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons."
Tensions have grown over the war in Ukraine after the US and its NATO allies sent heavy supplies of Western weaponry to Kyiv.
Some Russian politicians and commentators have long speculated about nuclear strikes, saying Russia has the right to defend itself with nuclear weapons if it is pushed beyond its limits.
"Tactical" nuclear weapons refer to those used for specific gains on a battlefield rather than those with the capacity to wipe out cities.
The US believes Russia has about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, which include bombs that can be carried by tactical aircraft, warheads for short-range missiles and artillery rounds, The Associated Press reported.
Experts told Reuters the development was significant, since Russia had until now been proud that unlike the US, it did not deploy nuclear weapons outside its borders.
The United States said it would "monitor the implications" of Putin's announcement.
"We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture nor any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon," US National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said. "We remain committed to the collective defense of the NATO alliance."
Counter to NATO
Putin did not specify when the weapons would be transferred to Belarus, which has borders with three NATO members — Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. He said Russia would complete the construction of a storage facility there by July 1.
It was also unclear where in Belarus the weapons would be stationed. The transfer is expected to expand Russia's nuclear strike ability along NATO's eastern border.
Putin said that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has long asked to have nuclear weapons in his country again as a counter to NATO.
"We are not handing over (the weapons). And the US does not hand (them) over to its allies. We're basically doing the same thing they've been doing for a decade," Putin said.
"They have allies in certain countries and they train ... their crews. We are going to do the same thing."
Russia has stationed 10 aircraft in Belarus capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons, Putin said, adding that it had already transferred to Belarus a number of Iskander tactical missile systems that can launch nuclear weapons.