(Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday that Russia will deploy tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus, the first time since the mid-1990s that Moscow has deployed such weapons outside the country.
Putin’s announcement came at a time of heightened tensions with the West over the Ukraine war and some Russian commentators speculating about possible nuclear strikes.
Putin told state television that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had long raised the issue of deploying tactical nuclear weapons in his country, which borders NATO member Poland.
“There is nothing unusual here either: firstly, the United States has been doing this for decades. They have long ago deployed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of allied countries,” he said.
“We agreed that we will do the same – without violating our obligations, I emphasize, without violating our international obligations on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.”
Putin did not specify when the weapons would be transferred to Belarus. “Tactical” nuclear weapons refer to those used to achieve specific gains on the battlefield.
Putin said Russia will finish building a storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus by July 1, adding that Moscow will not actually transfer control of the weapons to Minsk.
The US State Department and the Pentagon did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
He said that Russia has deployed 10 aircraft in Belarus that are capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons, adding that Moscow has already transferred to Belarus a number of tactical Iskander missile systems that can be used to launch nuclear weapons.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, nuclear weapons were deployed in the four newly independent countries of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
In May 1992, the four countries agreed that all weapons should be in Russia and the transfer of warheads from Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan was completed in 1996.
(Reporting by David Leungren in Ottawa; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Debbie Babbington)
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