Moscow and Minsk have signed a deal to formalise the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear missiles on Belarusian territory.
Russia on Thursday said the step was driven by rising tensions with the West.
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“In the context of an extremely sharp escalation of threats on the western borders of Russia and Belarus, a decision was made to take countermeasures in the military-nuclear sphere,” Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency quoted Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying.
The deployment of the missiles was first announced by President Vladimir Putin in March.
Since invading Ukraine last year, Putin has said repeatedly that Russia would be ready to use nuclear weapons if needed to defend its “territorial integrity”.
NATO said at the time it did not see any need to adjust its own nuclear posture, although the military alliance cast Putin’s nuclear rhetoric as “dangerous and irresponsible”.
But Richard Weitz, a Washington, DC-based foreign policy and defence analyst, told Al Jazeera that Russia was unlikely to benefit “in the purely military sense”.
“Russia already has thousands of nuclear weapons, and some of them are already deployed on the ground or on aeroplanes, near where the Belarusian facilities are likely to be located. So, it adds a couple more locations to what Russia already has,” he said.
“It’s political signalling … The Russian government at the highest levels will issue statements warning on the risk of nuclear war if NATO does give Patriots to Ukraine, give F-16s to Ukraine.
“It’s a way of just reminding the West that Russia is this great nuclear power and that the West better be careful, or we could stumble into a nuclear war.
“[It also] helps them strengthen ties or control over Belarus in the sense that the weapons are there. That’s another reason why Belarus’s security is tied to Russia but I think the main reason is part of this intimidation campaign.”
Ukraine has said Russia’s ally Belarus had been “taken hostage” by Moscow.
In March, Oleksiy Danilov, head of Ukraine’s national security and defence council, called the deal “a step towards internal destabilisation” of Belarus, and said it maximised what he termed the level of “negative perception and public rejection” of Russia and Putin in Belarusian society. “The Kremlin took Belarus as a nuclear hostage,” he wrote on Twitter.
Moscow will retain control over the weapons and any decisions on their use, Shoigu said.
TASS quoted him as saying that Iskander-M missiles, which can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, had been handed to the Belarusian armed forces, and some Su-25 aircraft had been converted for the possible use of nuclear weapons.
“Belarusian servicemen have received the necessary training in Russian training centres,” Shoigu was quoted as saying.
He added that the agreements signed with his Belarusian counterpart covered the procedure for establishing a “special storage facility for nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory”.
Tactical nuclear weapons refer to lower-yield weapons designed for battlefield use, as opposed to strategic ones capable of wiping out entire cities. Russia has not disclosed how many tactical nuclear weapons it has.