The European Union is threatening more sanctions on Russia if it stations tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.
It comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on March 25 that his government would move tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, in a clear warning to Ukraine and allied Western nations as they continue to provide military and financial support to Kyiv.
The bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, warned Belarus about allowing Russian tactical nuclear weapons to be placed in its territory.
“Belarus hosting Russian nuclear weapons would mean an irresponsible escalation & threat to European security. Belarus can still stop it, it is their choice. The EU stands ready to respond with further sanctions,” Borrell said in a Twitter post on March 26.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu condemned the Kremlin’s move, calling it “dangerous and irresponsible.”
Moving the weapons to a storage facility in Belarus raises the stakes in the Ukrainian conflict, by placing them closer to the combat zone and the borders of NATO.
Ukrainian service members next to an infantry fighting vehicle near the frontline town of Bakhmut, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Feb. 25, 2023. (Yan Dobronosov/Reuters)
Putin Protests UK-Supplied Depleted Uranium
Putin said that the move was triggered by the UK’s decision to provide Ukraine with depleted uranium armor piercing shells, which are widely considered to be toxic.
He said “the trigger was the statement by the British deputy minister of defenсe that they are going to supply depleted uranium munitions to Ukraine, this is somehow related to nuclear technology.”
“Those weapons are harmful not just for combatants, but also for the people living in those territories and for the environment,” he said in a previous statement.
Putin argued that the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus is no different than the United States storing nukes in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece, and Turkey.
“There is nothing unusual here either: firstly, the United States have been doing this for decades. They have long ago deployed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allied countries, NATO countries, in Europe, in six states.”
“We are going to do the same thing.”
Tactical nuclear weapons are short range and primarily intended for use on the battlefield. They a low yield compared with the more powerful nuclear warheads, which are carried by long range missiles.
The Russian president claimed that the decision does not violate existing nuclear non-proliferation agreements.
“I emphasize, without violating our international obligations on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, we have already helped our Belarusian colleagues and equip their aircraft, aircraft of the Belarusian Air Force. Ten aircraft are ready for use of this type weapon,” said Putin.
It would be the first time since 1996 that the Russians have based nuclear weapons outside of their borders.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there were once nuclear weapons within the borders of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, but they have since been returned to Russia.
Russia plans to maintain complete control over the nuclear weapons it sends to Belarus and will complete the storage facilities built to house them by July 1, Putin said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (R) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, attend a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at the Pentagon in Washington on March 15, 2023. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via AP)
Biden Administration Monitoring Situation
Putin did not reveal how many nuclear weapons would be left in Belarus, which borders Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, which are members of NATO.
The Pentagon believes that Russia has about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, including bombs that can be carried by tactical aircraft, along with warheads for short range missiles and artillery rounds.
“We have not seen any indication that he’s made good on this pledge, or moved any nuclear weapons around,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
The Biden administration said it would “monitor the implications” of Putin’s decision, but so far there has been no indication that the Russians have started to move nuclear weapons across their borders.
“We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture nor any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson.
“We remain committed to the collective defense of the NATO alliance.”
Meanwhile, Kyiv called for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council on March 26 to address the move, as Ukraine’s Security Council Secretary, Oleksiy Danilov, accused the Kremlin of taking Belarus as a “nuclear hostage” and said it was taking a “step towards the internal destabilization of the country.”
The Russian president also accused the West of building a new “axis” similar to that of the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan during World War Two, and denied that his country was building a military alliance with China.