Putin Says He Could Put Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Belarus by Summer

The proposal from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, talked of since last year, would be provocative without changing the West’s battlefield calculus in Ukraine.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said he would be able to position nuclear weapons in Belarus by the summer, a claim that analysts said was likely bluster but which underscored the Kremlin’s determination to use its vast nuclear arsenal to pressure the West to back down from its support of Ukraine.

Western officials condemned Mr. Putin’s remarks as irresponsible, even as they said that they saw no indication that Russia was making changes to how it deploys nuclear weapons.

Mr. Putin, in an interview released ahead of its broadcast on Russian state television on Sunday, provided new details of a plan that he first floated last year to base Russian weapons in Belarus, a close ally. He said that 10 Belarusian warplanes have already been retrofitted to carry Russian nuclear weapons, and that a storage facility for the warheads would be ready by July 1.

“The United States has been doing this for decades,” Mr. Putin said, insisting that his plan was no different from the American practice of positioning nuclear weapons in allied countries — an assertion that Western officials rejected.

The Russian leader has repeatedly raised the specter of using nuclear weapons since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. U.S. officials say they have seen no effort by Russia to move or employ its nuclear weapons and believe the risk of their use is low, but worries have lingered.

It was not clear whether Mr. Putin would in fact transfer Russian nuclear weapons into Belarus, and in the interview Mr. Putin was vague on the timeline for such a move. Analysts also pointed out that even if Russia were to transfer some of its warheads, the action wouldn’t substantially change the nuclear threat posed by Russia since it can already target a vast range of territory from inside its own borders.

But Mr. Putin’s comments in the interview underlined his continuing efforts to unsettle Western officials — and Western public opinion — with the prospect that the war in Ukraine could escalate into a nuclear conflict. Mr. Putin said that the nuclear warheads Russia intended to position in Belarus were of the “tactical” variety, meaning that they would be meant for battlefield use and have lower explosive power than the “strategic” type that can threaten entire cities.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, right, with President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus in Minsk last year.Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik, via Shutterstock

In response to Mr. Putin’s comments, a NATO spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, said Sunday that “we have not seen any changes in Russia’s nuclear posture that would lead us to adjust our own.” But she called Mr. Putin’s rhetoric “dangerous and irresponsible.”

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