Russian President Vladimir Putin earned fresh condemnation from President Joe Biden’s administration on Thursday after moving forward with a plan to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring ally Belarus.
Putin first described plans to move tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus in March. On Thursday, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko told the Russian state-owned news outlet Sputnik that the tactical nuclear deployment had begun.
The deployment marks the first time Russian tactical nuclear weapons have been deployed outside of Russia since 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Russia has armed Belarus with Iskander-M missiles, which are hypersonic missiles that can carry conventional or nuclear warheads. He also said Russia had transferred some Su-25 aircraft that have been converted to be able to launch nuclear weapons.
“Belarusian servicemen have received the necessary training,” Shoigu was quoted as saying by his ministry.
Tactical Nuke Deployment ‘Irresponsible and Provocative’: White House
Tactical nuclear weapons are envisioned as a means of delivering the destructive power of a nuclear weapon in a relatively limited battlefield space. These weapons are usually smaller in yield than the strategic nuclear weapons designed to destroy entire cities during the Cold War.
“We’ve seen the reports of the Russia, Belarus arrangement and will continue to monitor, certainly, the implications here,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a Thursday White House press briefing.
Jean-Pierre said the U.S. side has not seen indications that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon and so the United States will not change its own nuclear posture in response. She did, however, condemn the move.
“This is yet another example of [Putin] making irresponsible and provocative choices,” she said. “We remain committed to a collective defense of the NATO alliance, and I’ll just leave it there.”
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller similarly criticized the tactical nuclear weapon deployment in Belarus.
“We strongly condemn the arrangement,” Miller told reporters at a Thursday press briefing. “It’s the latest example of irresponsible behavior that we have seen from Russia since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine over a year ago.”
Miller added that the use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons in the Russia-Ukraine conflict “would be met with severe consequences,” though he did not elaborate on what those consequences might be.
Russian officials have tied the tactical nuclear deployment in Belarus to U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) support for the Ukrainian government, which has been fighting Russian invasion forces since February of last year.
“The collective West is essentially waging an undeclared war against our countries,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, said at a meeting with his Belarusian counterpart in Minsk, according to Russia’s defense ministry.
The U.S. and NATO have gradually escalated support for Ukrainian forces, beginning by sending man-portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft launchers at the start of the war in February. As time has progressed, western allies have provided Ukrainian forces with self-destructing anti-personnel drones, advanced HIMARS rocket launchers, armored fighting vehicles, and tanks.
Biden ruled out transferring F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine in January of this year, but reversed course after meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the G-7 summit of world leaders in Hiroshima, Japan, over the weekend. After relenting to Zelenskyy’s requests for fighter jets, Biden said, “I have a flat assurance from Zelenskyy that they will not use [the F-16s] to go on and move into Russian geographic territory.”
Russian officials have also raised alarm this week after a group of self-described Russian rebels carried out a cross-border raid from Ukraine into the Belgorod region of western Russia. Photographs and videos purported to show some of these cross-border raiders using U.S.-made Humvee and MaxxPro Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. On Wednesday, Miller said the U.S. side was investigating whether U.S. equipment was in-fact used in the cross-border raid and said “we don’t support the use of U.S.-made equipment being used for attacks inside of Russia.”
Reuters contributed to this article.
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