Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning to move tactical nuclear weapons to storage facilities in Belarus — and potentially deploy them from that location later — in a move he compared to U.S. nuclear installments in NATO countries.
Russia is building storage units for the weapons that are expected to be ready on July 1, according to the Financial Times. Lukashenko has allowed Belarus to serve as a staging ground for the Russian invasion of Ukraine from the earliest days of the war.
Putin said in remarks on Saturday that he was moving the nuclear weapons to Belarus in response to a longstanding request from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to counter NATO. He also said the move is a counter to the U.K.’s decision to send armor-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium to Ukraine.
Moscow would retain control of the nuclear armaments, Putin said.
“There is nothing unusual here: first of all, the US has been doing this for decades,” Putin said. “They placed their tactical nuclear weapons in six different allied NATO countries in Europe. … We have agreed to do the same thing, without, I stress, violating our international non-proliferation obligations.”
“They have [tactical nuclear weapons] in certain countries, prepare the delivery systems, and train the crews. We’re planning to do the same thing,” he added.
In response to the Russian maneuvering, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council. Ukraine called for members of the council to intervene directly to stop the nuclear threat.
“Ukraine expects effective actions to counter the nuclear blackmail of the Kremlin,” Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, according to The Wall Street Journal. “We demand to immediately convene an extraordinary meeting of the U.N. Security Council for this purpose.”
Russia’s move appears calculated to threaten that the conflict in Ukraine could escalate to a nuclear conflict, though officials in the U.S. remain skeptical that Putin would actually follow through with a nuclear strike. U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the White House is monitoring Russia’s moves, but has no reason to believe that Moscow intends to use the nuclear weapons.
“We have not seen any indication that he has made good on this pledge or moved any nuclear weapons around,” Kirby said on Sunday. “We’ve in fact seen no indication he has any intention to use nuclear weapons, period, inside Ukraine.”
It’s unclear how many tactical nuclear weapons Putin intends to house in Belarus. The U.S. estimates that Russia’s entire nuclear arsenal comprises around 2,000 such bombs.