MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Moscow will deploy some of its tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus next month, a move that the Belarusian opposition described as an attempt to blackmail the West.
Putin said during a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that work on building facilities for the nuclear weapons will be completed by July 7-8, and they will be moved to the territory of Russia's neighbor and ally quickly after that.
The move comes as Ukraine has stepped up attacks in several sectors of the front line in what some observers see as the start of its long-expected counteroffensive.
Russia used Belarus’ territory to send its troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, and has kept forces and weapons on the territory of its ally.
“Everything is proceeding as planned,” Putin said in televised remarks as he hosted Lukashenko at his residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. “On July 7-8 the preparations of the relevant facilities will be completed and we will immediately start the activities linked to the deployment of those weapons on your territory.”
Tactical nuclear weapons are intended to destroy enemy troops and weapons on the battlefield. They have a relatively short range and a much lower yield than nuclear warheads fitted to long-range strategic missiles that are capable of obliterating whole cities.
Putin announced the planned deployment of the short-range nuclear weapons in Belarus earlier this year in a move widely seen as a warning to the West as it stepped up military support for Ukraine. He has emphasized that Russia will retain control of them.
Russia didn't say how many nuclear weapons would be sent to Belarus. The U.S. government believes Russia has about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, which include bombs that can be carried by aircraft, warheads for short-range missiles and artillery rounds.
Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya strongly condemned the move.
“Putin and his puppet Lukashenko are planning to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus immediately before NATO's summit in Vilnius in July,” Tsikhanouskaya told The Associated Press. "This is a rude blackmail, an attempt to force Europe to back down, but we can't allow dictators to dodge punishment for the nuclear blackmail.
Lukashenko, who has been in power for 29 years, has relied on Russia's political and economic support to survive months of protests, mass arrests and Western sanctions following an election in 2020 that kept him in power but was widely seen at home and abroad as rigged.
Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia contributed to this report.