Russia has started to move tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus in the first such deployment on foreign soil since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, according to the Belarusian president.
“The movement of the nuclear weapons has already begun,” Alexander Lukashenko told reporters during a summit of the Eurasian Economic Forum in Moscow. Asked if the weapons were already in Belarus, he said: “Possibly. When I get back I will check.”
The comments came a few hours after the two countries signed a deal formalising the transfer of the weapons – but teh control over them remains with the Kremlin. The move was denounced by the White House as an “example of [Moscow] making irresponsible and provocative choices.”
The US 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. Such weapons have a relatively short range and lower yields than nuclear warheads fitted to long-range strategic missiles, with the US having around 200 of the weapons – half of which are at bases in Europe.
Belarus borders three Nato members – Poland, Lithuania and Latvia – and Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu said that Iskander-M missiles, which can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, had been handed to the Belarusian armed forces. He also said some Su-25 aircraft had been converted for the possible use of nuclear weapons.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced the move late in March, having repeatedly warned Western allies about stepping up their military support for Ukraine in the wake of Moscow’s invasion. “The collective West is essentially waging an undeclared war against our countries,” Mr Shoigu, claimed at a meeting with his Belarusian counterpart in Minsk, according to Russia’s Defence Ministry. “Deployment of nonstrategic nuclear weapons is an effective response to the aggressive policy of countries unfriendly to us,” the Belarusian defense minister, Viktor Khrenin, said at the meeting.
The signing of the deal, which further aligns both countries militaries, comes as Russia prepared for a counteroffensive by Ukraine.
On the battlefield. the head of the Wagner mercenary group said his forces have started to withdraw from the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut – and would hand all its positions over to the Russian army by the start of June.
The fight for the city, which has been of the bloodiest of Moscow’s invasion, has taken on symbolic significance for both Ukraine and Russia. Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed last week that his Wagner forces had taken control of Bakhmut, although Kyiv has denied this and says that Russia does not control the area and that its own troops have small footholds in parts of the city.
“From today at five in the morning, May 25 until June 1, most of the [Wagner] units will rebase to camps in the rear,” Mr Prighozin – a Putin ally – said in a video, wearing battle gear and standing beside a war-damaged residential block.
Having constantly berated Russian defence officials and military chiefs over a lack of ammunition and supplies for Wagner forces – and recently for losing some of the ground the mercenaries have gained to Ukranian advances – Mr Prigozhin could not resist another dig in his announcement. He said that some Wagner fighters will stay behind to assist Russian troops.
“The moment when the military are in a tough situation, they will stand up,” he said, while also jokingly warning two mercenaries not to “bully the military”.
Mr Prigozhin has a long-running feud with the Russian military leadership, dating back to Wagner’s creation in 2014. He has also built a reputation for inflammatory statements that he later backtracks on.
Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said in a message on the Telegram app that Wagner had handed over positions on the city’s outskirts but “inside the city itself Wagner fighters remain”. Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern military command, said the number of Russian attacks in the area had fallen in the last three days, and that there had been two military engagements in the last 24 hours, though shelling continued.
“We can definitely note a reduction in attacks and possibly this is linked to their regrouping. It is clear that we have inflicted heavy losses and they need this [to regroup],” he said.
Ms Maliar said Russia was also reinforcing its positions on the flanks of Bakhmut and shelling Ukrainian forces to try to stop the Ukrainian advances.
Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report