TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Russia and Belarus on Thursday signed an agreement formalizing the deployment of Moscow’s tactical nuclear weapons in its ally’s territory, though arms control remains with the Kremlin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the deployment of shorter-range weapons to Belarus earlier this year in a move widely seen as a warning to the West as he steps up military support for Ukraine.
A date for the deployment of the weapons was not announced, but Putin said construction of storage facilities in Belarus would be completed by July 1.
It is also unclear how many nuclear weapons are believed to be kept in Belarus. The US government estimates that Russia has about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, including bombs that can be carried by planes, 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 the nuclear warheads fitted to long-range strategic missiles capable of wiping out entire cities.
The signing of the agreement comes as Russia prepares for Ukraine’s long-awaited counter-offensive. Russian and Belarusian officials have also called the step motivated by Western hostility.
“The deployment of non-strategic nuclear weapons is an effective response to the aggressive policy of countries that are hostile to us,” Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin said in Minsk during a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu.
“In the context of an extremely sharp escalation of threats to the western borders of Russia and Belarus, it was decided to take countermeasures in the military-nuclear sphere,” Shoigu added.
Putin argued that in deploying its tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, Russia was following the lead of the United States, noting that the United States had nuclear weapons based in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and in Turkey.
Belarusian opposition leader in exile Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya condemned the decision.
“We must do everything to prevent Putin’s plan to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus, as this will secure Russian control over Belarus for years to come,” Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press. “This will further compromise the security of Ukraine and all of Europe.”
Independent Belarusian military analyst Aliaksandr Alesin said about two-thirds of Russia’s arsenal of medium-range nuclear-tipped missiles was held in Belarus during the Cold War, adding that there are dozens of storage facilities from the Soviet era that could still be used.
Soviet nuclear weapons stationed in Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan were transferred to Russia under a US-brokered deal after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
“Documents in Minsk on the return of nuclear weapons were defiantly signed just as Ukraine declared a counter-offensive and Western countries handed over weapons to Kiev,” Alesin told the AP.
“This Belarusian nuclear balcony should spoil the mood for Western politicians, because nuclear missiles are capable of covering Ukraine, all of Poland, the Baltic states and parts of Germany.”
Khrenin also announced his intention to “strengthen the combat potential of the regional grouping of Russian and Belarusian troops”, including the transfer to Minsk of the Iskander-M missile system, capable of carrying a nuclear charge, and anti-aircraft S-400. missile system.
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 starting point to invade neighboring Ukraine and maintained a contingent of troops and weapons there.
Follow AP coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine