President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said he would be able to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus by the summer, a move that threatens to escalate tensions with the United States and Europe while its troops fight in Ukraine.
The Russian leader has repeatedly raised threats of using nuclear weapons since ordering a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. While US officials say they have not seen any Russian attempts to move or use its nuclear weapons and believe the risk of their use is low, concerns remain.
Putin's remarks about arms deployments in Belarus, a prospect he first floated last year, could again become a sword threat. That doesn't necessarily change the calculus of the battlefield: Any target Moscow can attack from Belarus, which borders three NATO members, can already be hit from Russian territory.
American officials indicated that they did not sense an immediate escalation.
In an interview with state media released online on Saturday, Putin said that construction of a tactical nuclear weapons storage facility in Belarus would be completed by July 1. according to the Tass news agencyalthough it is not yet clear whether or when nuclear weapons will be moved there.
Increasingly isolated from the West, Putin has relied on allies like Belarus, a country bordering Ukraine which is being used as a staging ground for a full-scale invasion of Moscow. Putin claimed that President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus had requested that Moscow place weapons on his soil. There was no immediate comment from Mr Lukashenko of Belarus.
Putin made the comments during an extensive interview for a state television show dedicated to the Russian president called “Moscow. Kremlin. Putin,” which airs Sunday night.
In response to questions focusing on Britain's decision to ship weapons containing depleted uranium to Ukraine, Putin condemned Britain's move and later said he was moving forward with a plan, first disclosed last year, to give Russia the capability to build nuclear weapons. in Belarus.
But Putin described his announcement as “unusual,” saying the United States had long since deployed its own nuclear weapons within the borders of its European allies.
“We are doing in principle all the same things they have been doing for decades,” Putin said. “Without violating, I wish to stress this, our international obligations on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons,” he added.
His statement added several details about what is known about Russia's plans, including that Moscow would begin training Belarusian crews to operate the weapons in April and that Russia had refitted 10 Belarusian warplanes to be able to carry the weapons.
But Putin was not clear on when Russia would actually send its own nuclear warheads to Belarus. Asked in a follow-up question by the interviewer, Pavel Zarubin, “when and under what conditions can the weapons themselves be surrendered?”, Putin replied simply by saying that Russia was copying America's “nuclear sharing” practice in which America's nuclear weapons are based in allied countries such as German.
Oleksiy Danilov, head of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, accused the Kremlin of seizing Belarus “as a nuclear hostage.” The German foreign ministry called Putin's announcement “another attempt at nuclear intimidation,” according to German news agency DPA
On Saturday evening, the Pentagon released an email statement saying: “We have seen the Russian announcement report and will continue to monitor this situation.” He added: “We have seen no reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture or any indication that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons. We remain committed to the collective defense of the NATO alliance.”
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group, dismissed Putin's announcement as an “information operation” with little risk of escalation.
“Putin seeks to exploit the West's fear of nuclear escalation,” he said, adding that the group “continues to judge that Putin is a risk-averse actor who repeatedly threatens to use nuclear weapons with no intention of following through to destroy the West. finish.”
Russia has as many as 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, which have a lower yield than the strategic types that can traverse across continents. Tactical nuclear weapons have never been used in combat, but can be used in a number of ways, including by missiles or artillery shells.
Christopher F. Schuetze reporting contribution.