President Vladimir Putin said Russia would start deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus by next month, once the necessary infrastructure is ready.
In a high-level meeting with his Belarus counterpart Alexander Lukashenko at the Black Sea summer retreat in Sochi, Putin said that the preparation work is going “according to the plan.”
“Preparation of the relevant facilities ends on July 7-8, and we will immediately begin activities related to the deployment of appropriate types of weapons on your territory,” Interfax quoted President Putin as saying on Friday.
Russia first announced its decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus in March.
In an interview with Rossiya 1 TV channel, Putin assured that this action would not breach any nuclear non-proliferation agreements and drew a comparison with the US stationing its weapons in Europe.
Putin emphasized that Moscow would maintain control of its arms and not transfer them to Minsk. However, Putin's remarks triggered a prompt response from the European Union, cautioning Belarus against allowing such weapons on its territory.
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.
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 that can be fitted with nuclear or conventional warheads, to Belarus. Russia helped Belarus convert ten aircraft capable of carrying tactical nuclear warheads.
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 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, 2022, 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.