Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has said his country has started taking delivery of Russian tactical nuclear weapons, some of which he said were three times more powerful than the atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
The deployment is Moscow’s first move of such warheads — shorter-range less powerful nuclear weapons that could potentially be used on the battlefield — outside Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union.
“We have missiles and bombs that we have received from Russia,” Lukashenko said in an interview with the Rossiya-1 Russian state TV channel which was posted on the Belarusian Belta state news agency’s Telegram channel.
“The bombs are three times more powerful than those (dropped on) Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he said, speaking on a road in a forest clearing with military vehicles parked nearby and some kind of military storage facility visible in the background.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that Russia, which will retain control of the tactical nuclear weapons, would start deploying them in Belarus after special storage facilities to house them were made ready.
The Russian leader announced in March he had agreed to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, pointing to the U.S deployment of such weapons in a host of European countries over many decades.
The United States has criticized Putin’s decision but has said it has no intention of altering its own stance on strategic nuclear weapons and has not seen any signs that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon.
The Russian step is nonetheless being watched closely by the United States and its allies as well as by China, which has repeatedly cautioned against the use of nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.
Lukashenko, a close ally of Putin, told Russian state TV in the interview, which was released late on Tuesday, that his country had numerous nuclear storage facilities left over from the Soviet-era and had restored five or six of them.
He played down the idea that Russian control of the weapons was an impediment to using them quickly if he felt such a move was necessary, saying he and Putin could pick up the phone to each other “at any moment.”
Earlier on Tuesday, he had said separately that the Russian tactical nuclear weapons would be physically deployed on the territory of Belarus “in several days” and that he had the facilities to host longer-range missiles too if ever needed.
Lukashenko, who has allowed his country to be used by Russian forces attacking Ukraine as part of what Moscow calls its “special military operation," says the nuclear deployment will act as a deterrent against potential aggressors.
Belarus borders three NATO member countries: Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.
The 68-year-old former Soviet collective farm boss, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, making him Europe’s longest-serving leader, said he didn’t simply ask Putin for the weapons, but “demanded” them.
“We have always been a target,” Lukashenko said. “They (the West) have wanted to tear us to pieces since 2020. No one has so far fought against a nuclear country, a country that has nuclear weapons.”
Lukashenko has repeatedly accused the West of trying to topple him after mass protests against his rule erupted in 2020 in the wake of a presidential election the opposition said he had fraudulently won. Lukashenko said he had won fairly, while conducting a sweeping crackdown on his opponents.