Russia’s plan to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus has prompted an immediate reaction from the European Union.
On Sunday, EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell cautioned Belarus against allowing such weapons on its territory.
“Belarus hosting Russian nuclear weapons would mean an irresponsible escalation and threat to European security,” Borrell wrote on his Twitter account. “Belarus can still stop it, it is their choice.”
He went further to say that the EU stands ready to impose new sanctions if Minsk were to host Russian nuclear weapons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Saturday the decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. In an interview with Rossiya 1 TV channel, Putin claimed that this action would not breach any nuclear non-proliferation agreements and drew a comparison with the US stationing its weapons in Europe.
“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.
Furthermore, Putin emphasized that Moscow would maintain control of its arms and not transfer them to Minsk.
Meanwhile, the US, the world’s other nuclear superpower, played down concerns about Russia’s intention of utilizing these nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.
“We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture nor any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon. We remain committed to the collective defence of the NATO alliance,” CNN quoted State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel as saying on Sunday.
Tactical nuclear weapons refer to those used for specific gains on a battlefield rather than those with the capacity to wipe out cities.
Moscow has so far transferred an Iskander short-range missile system, a device which can be fitted with nuclear or conventional warheads, to Belarus. Russia helped Belarus convert ten aircraft to make them capable of carrying tactical nuclear warheads and will start training pilots to fly the re-configured planes early next month.
The construction of a storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus is projected to be completed by 1 July. According to Putin, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had long requested the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.
Belarus shares borders with Ukraine, as well as NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
While the Belarusian army has not fought in Ukraine, Minsk and Moscow have a close military relationship. Ahead of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, tens of thousands of Russian troops were reportedly moved to Belarus to conduct military exercises. Russia used the country as a staging post for the invasion of northern Ukraine.
Russia and Belarus are co-founding members of the Union State, which supposes the gradual establishment of a unified political, economic, military, customs, currency, legal, humanitarian and cultural space.
Belarus — a former Soviet republic — is vital to Russia both economically and strategically. Located between Russia and NATO allies in northeastern Europe, Belarus serves as a buffer against the western military block.