Vladimir Putin has announced plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus for the first time, shifting his most destructive weapons closer to Europe and Kyiv.
The shift will see Russia store part of its nuclear arsenal in another country for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Putin told Russian TV broadcast yesterday: “We agreed with Lukashenko that we would place tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus without violating the nonproliferation regime.”
Putin went on to suggest that his announcement was in response to news that Britain was sending depleted uranium shells to Ukraine with its Challenger-2 tanks.
He added: “Russia has its own answer to ammunition with depleted uranium. We have similar weapons, but the Russian Federation has not yet used them.”
Experts insist however that depleted uranium is standard use in British armour-piercing shells and holds no nuclear value.
Responding to Russia’s concerns around depleted uranium earlier in the week, the British ministry of defence said: “The British Army has used depleted uranium in its armour piercing shells for decades. It is a standard component and has nothing to do with nuclear weapons or capabilities. Russia knows this, but is deliberately trying to disinform.” Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president, is a staunch supporter of Putin and allowed Russia to use Belarus as a launchpad for its invasion of Ukraine.
He has resisted Putin’s pressure to directly enter the war but has allowed Russian warplanes to use Belarusian airspace to fire missiles at Ukrainian targets.
Last year, the Russian military upgraded Belarus’ air force so that it was capable of firing missiles with nuclear warheads and in February Belarus’ military said it had taken delivery of Iskander missile launchers from Russia which are capable of firing nuclear-tipped missiles.
Putin said he wasn’t breaking any international treaties because we are “doing what the US has been doing for decades”.
“We agreed that we will do the same, without violating our obligations,” he said.
The US stations nuclear missiles in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.
Earlier this year, Russia pulled out of the Start Nuclear Treaty, the last remaining treaty with the US aimed at stopping a nuclear arms proliferation.
Putin said the storage facility to house tactical nuclear weapons would be completed by July and that Russia would remain in control of the weapons.
Russia is already suspected of stationing nuclear weapons in its European enclave of Kaliningrad, wedged between Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea.
It has also developed a missile called Satan-2 that can fire a nuclear warhead at any city in the world within minutes.
Meanwhile Vlodymyr Zelensky has said his forces cannot launch a counter-offensive without more long-range Himars and other US equipment.
In an interview with Yomiuri Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, the Ukrainian president said: “We can’t launch a counteroffensive yet. Without tanks, artillery and Himars, we cannot send our brave soldiers to the front lines.”
Himars — high mobility artillery rocket systems — can fire munitions very accurately up to 80km.
They have been a game-changer on the battlefield since they were sent by the US last summer, hitting Russian ammunition depots, command centres, and barracks.
Ukrainian military commanders have talked up a spring offensive — and have refused to retreat from Bakhmut, the town in the eastern Donbas region where Russia has concentrated its attacks, to give its army more time to prepare for the spring battle.
But Ukraine’s Western allies have said that Ukrainian forces have been firing ammunition at a faster rate than it can be resupplied. It is also taking time for Nato countries to send modern tanks and other kit to Ukraine.
Some US military commanders have expressed concern at the time it will take to replace inventory being sent to Ukraine. The US has sent at least 20 Himars to date.
Lockheed Martin, which makes the weapons, recently said it was increasing production to 96 a year from 60 a year.