NATO has criticised Vladimir Putin for what it called his “dangerous and irresponsible” nuclear rhetoric after the Russian president announced his country would station tactical nuclear arms in Belarus.
Putin said on Saturday that the deployment was similar to moves from the United States, which stores such weapons in bases across Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey – an analogy Western allies called “misleading”.
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With fears of a nuclear war rising since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, experts believe that any Russian strike would likely involve small-size battlefield weapons, described as “tactical”, as opposed to “strategic” high-powered long-range nuclear weapons.
Ukraine said it was seeking an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to counter Russia’s “nuclear blackmail”.
“Ukraine expects effective actions to counteract the Kremlin’s nuclear blackmail from the United Kingdom, China, the United States and France,” the Ukrainian foreign ministry said on Sunday.
“We demand that an extraordinary meeting of the UN Security Council be immediately convened for this purpose,” it added.
NATO also joined the criticism, with spokeswoman Oana Lungescu saying “Russia’s reference to NATO’s nuclear sharing is totally misleading. NATO allies act with full respect of their international commitments.”
Lungescu also blasted Russia’s announcement as “dangerous and irresponsible”.
However, she said the Western allies had not yet “seen any changes in Russia’s nuclear posture that would lead us to adjust our own”.
On Saturday, Putin announced Russia would station tactical nuclear weapons in neighbour and ally Belarus “without violating our international agreements on nuclear non-proliferation”.
The Ukrainian foreign ministry accused Russia of breaching its obligations, and of undermining the “nuclear disarmament architecture and the international security system in general”.
It called on “all members of the international community to convey to the criminal Putin regime the categorical unacceptability of its latest nuclear provocations”.
Susi Snyder of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons told Al Jazeera that Russia deploying nuclear weapons in Belarus could potentially lead to “extremely catastrophic consequences”.
“It increases the risk of the use of nuclear weapons by adding more actors, who might potentially have the ability to drop nuclear bombs, and create potential for chaos and miscommunication,” Snyder said.
“These weapons, if used, would have similar or greater results than what we saw in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. They can cause huge catastrophic harm.”
Putin said the move to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus was “nothing unusual”.
“The United States has been doing this for decades. They have long placed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allies,” Putin said.
Putin said he spoke to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and that they “agreed to do the same”.
Russia will start training crews on April 3 and plans to finish the construction of a special storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons by July 1.
Germany said the comparison was misleading.
“The comparison made by President Putin to nuclear sharing in NATO is misleading and does not justify the step announced by Russia,” an official from Germany’s foreign office told the AFP news agency.
Experts said Russia’s move was significant since it had until now been proud that unlike the US, it did not deploy nuclear weapons outside its borders. It may be the first time since the mid-1990s that it has done so.
Putin has previously said that nuclear tensions were “rising” globally but that Moscow would not deploy first.
Back in February 2022, Belarus allowed the Kremlin to launch its invasion of Ukraine from Belarusian territory.
Fears have since risen that Belarus may join its ally’s offensive, but President Lukashenko, a key Putin ally, said he would do so “only if attacked”.
On Sunday, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, Oleksiy Danilov, wrote on Twitter that “the Kremlin took Belarus as a nuclear hostage”.
He added that the move was “a step towards the internal destabilisation of the country”.
Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak added “[Putin] admits that he is afraid of losing and all he can do is scare” people.
The Russian leader said renewed discussions with Lukashenko on the issue were spurred by a UK official’s suggestion that depleted uranium weapons be sent to Ukraine.
Russia has “what it needs to answer” if the West supplied Ukraine with such ammunition, he added.
“Without exaggeration, we have hundreds of thousands of such shells. We have not used them yet.”